Sunday, June 17, 2007

Review of 'The Witches of Eastwick'

On Friday evening, Tim Hulsey and I saw the U.S. premiere of The Witches of Eastwick (book and lyrics by John Dempsey, music by Dana P. Rowe, directed by Eric Schaeffer) at Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia. Here is my review, scheduled to appear in next Friday's edition of The Metro Herald.

Trouble in River Bay City:
The American Premiere of ‘The Witches of Eastwick’
Rick Sincere
Metro Herald Entertainment Editor

(ARLINGTON) --- Fifty years ago, a musical play opened on Broadway that had a curious number of similarities to The Witches of Eastwick, which is now having its American premiere at Signature Theatre in Arlington.

That show, Meredith Willson’s The Music Man, played for 1,375 performances, won seven Tony Awards, led to an Oscar-winning hit film and two Broadway revivals, and generated countless regional and community-theatre productions.

Some of the parallels:

• In The Music Man, a mysterious stranger arrives in a staid Midwestern town and turns the place upside-down through charm, force of personality, and music. In The Witches of Eastwick, a mysterious stranger arrives in a staid New England town and turns the place upside-down through charm, force of personality, and music.

• In The Music Man, the townsfolk introduce themselves and their attitudes through an ensemble number called “Iowa Stubborn.” In The Witches of Eastwick, the comparable song is called “Eastwick Knows.”

The Music Man’s heroine sings a song of longing called “Good Night, My Someone.” The Witches of Eastwick’s heroines sing a song of longing, too: a trio called “Make Him Mine.”

• The stranger in The Music Man, Harold Hill, interjects himself at a community gathering by singing “Seventy-Six Trombones.” The stranger in Witches interjects himself at a community gathering by singing about himself in “Darryl Van Horne.”

• Each play has a pair of teenage lovers in which the girl’s parents disapprove of her relationship with a boy from the wrong side of the tracks. (In The Music Man, the pair are Zaneeta Shinn and Tommy Djilas; in Witches, they are Jennifer Gabriel and Michael Spofford.)

The Music Man has a gossip song called “Pick-a-Little, Talk-a-Little.” Witches has a gossip song called “Dirty Laundry.”

• The Music Man’s protagonist has a sidekick named Marcellus. The Witches of Eastwick’s protagonist has a sidekick named Fidel.

• Harold Hill tries to court the heroine of The Music Man by singing a number aimed to appeal to her deepest values, “Marian the Librarian.” Darryl Van Horne seduces the three heroines of Eastwick by singing three songs that appeal to their deepest secrets: “Waiting for the Music to Begin” to cellist Jane, “Words, Words, Words” to writer Sukie, and “Your Wildest Dreams” to sculptress Alexandra.

• River City, the town in The Music Man, has a busybody (Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn) who aims to protect the town’s values, who is also married to the mayor. Eastwick also has a town busybody (Felicia Gabriel) who aims to protect the town’s values, who is also married to the newspaper publisher.

• The busybody in The Music Man eventually succumbs to the mysterious stranger’s charms. The busybody in The Witches of Eastwick eventually succumbs to a brutal, grisly … OK, perhaps the parallels do not go quite so far as I originally thought.

First staged in London seven years ago, the original Cameron Mackintosh production of The Witches of Eastwick was called “empty but entertaining” in a Metro Herald review. It seemed then that Eric Schaeffer’s direction was much better than the material provided to him by librettist John Dempsey and composer Dana Rowe.

Unfortunately, despite trimming, tightening, and modifying the book and score, the basic material is still weak, but Schaeffer’s direction and vision for the production – including the brilliant scenic design by Walt Spangler and lighting design by Chris Lee – overcomes the shortcomings of the book, lyrics, music, and (most acutely) characters. In short, Schaeffer’s production rises above the problematic material so that the final product is nearly – not quite, but almost – a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

This is true, too, of the performances – particularly Tony nominees Marc Kudisch as Emily Skinner as, respectively, Darryl and Alexandra, as well as Christiane Noll as Jane and Jacquelyn Piro Donovan as Sukie – who take two-dimensional characters and give them some weight, even if we cannot be entirely sympathetic to them. All four principals deserve kudos for excellent vocal performances, demonstrating amazing laryngeal and diaphragmatic gymnastics.

The problems, however, start at the beginning, when we learn that the three principal women dislike town busybody Felicia (Karlah Hamilton). We don’t learn why, exactly – other than that Felicia is rich and haughty and that Sukie is having an affair with Felicia’s husband, Clyde (Harry A. Winter). But Felicia is made-up and coiffed like Leona Helmsley at her bitchiest, so she must be dislikable.

We also fail to learn why the three women feel so out of place and alienated in their hometown. We do know they have “man problems” – they have been divorced, deceived, and discarded by more men than they care to name – but it’s not made clear why this is the fault of the town or why, if it is, they don’t just move someplace else.

Along comes Darryl, the devil himself, who is sexy, seductive, and sarcastic. As written, however, Darryl has at best one-and-a-half dimensions. The devil has come across as far more well-rounded when characterized by Goethe, Milton, and Douglass Wallop (who created Mr. Applegate for Damn Yankees). Dempsey and Rowe – or perhaps John Updike, author of the novel that is the musical’s ultimate source – fail to get below Darryl’s surface, making him not enigmatic but uninteresting.

Under Darryl’s tutelage, the three women discover their inner lusts and heretofore unknown powers, which they find can be used for evil as well as for pleasure (not, it seems, for anything altruistic or kind).

Yet even as he empowers Alexandra, Sukie, and Jane, at bottom Darryl is a bitter misogynist: He even says to Alexandra that she is “worse than nothing. You’re a woman!” Whatever he has done to reshape these women’s personalities, it has ultimately been for his own pleasure.

In other words, this play is undergirded by a twisted, twisted set of values. It may look like musical comedy on the surface; its ending may appear to be redemptive in nature; its darkness may be interpreted as satire; but when all is said and done, The Witches of Eastwick is little more than a celebration of the polymorphously perverse.

Still, there is the nagging fact that Schaeffer’s staging is creatively entertaining. He even gets laughs out of props, immodestly placed. Schaeffer uses a little girl – listed in the program as “Little Girl” (Brittany O’Grady) – to smart effect as a link between scenes while also taking some of the edge off the darker moments of the play. Ensemble numbers like “Dirty Laundry” and “Dance with the Devil” bring out the best of the singers, orchestra, and technical team. (“Dirty Laundry” and the Sondheimesque “Evil” are the best-written numbers in the show.)

It is in “Dance with the Devil,” as an example, that Schaeffer’s current interpretation of Witches shows its evolution from his vision in London. The character of Michael, Alexandra’s son, was played in London by Swedish pop star Peter Jöback; here at Signature, Michael is played by James Gardiner.

Jöback portrayed Michael as shy, unassuming, and unsure of himself; by Darryl’s teaching him how to “Dance with the Devil,” Jöback’s Michael charismatically emerged from his chrysalis as a rock star, ripping off his shirt to the shrieks of teeming Norwegian teenage fans.

Gardiner, too, portrays Michael as shy, unassuming, and unsure of himself; his boy-next-door is goofily self-effacing. By the end of “Dance with the Devil,” however, Gardiner’s Michael is now more sure of himself – still the boy-next-door, but with a lusty veneer that wasn’t there before. Goofy still, but not charismatic, he’s all the more endearing for the change – and at the end of the play, his is the only character who displays common decency that we can respect, but in a gesture so small that it is likely to be missed in the din.

The ultimate problem with The Witches of Eastwick is that the central conflict is never clearly defined. Is it Felicia versus the three women? Is it Darryl’s new values versus the town’s old values? (Considering that all three of his protégés have been sleeping around before his arrival, his seduction of them is not exactly “new,” nor does it contribute to their delinquency.) Is the conflict internal within each of the women as they struggle to come to terms with their own insecurities? Is it all of the above and, if so, why is it so muddled?

With the central conflict unclear, the “resolution” at play’s end seems hapless and arbitrary. We feel neither joy nor pride at the result, and are left to wonder just whose values have triumphed – if anyone’s at all.

As a technical achievement, The Witches of Eastwick is nonpareil. It puts to good use all of the facilities of The Max, the larger stage area of Signature’s new theatre building in Shirlington. The special effects are dazzling, and should not be disregarded. Yet dazzle in this case serves largely to cover up the sadly marginal quality of the play itself.

Should The Witches of Eastwick reach Broadway, will it have the same stellar success as The Music Man before it? To paraphrase one of the songs in the show, “I Wish [It] May” – but I wouldn’t bet on it.

The American premiere of The Witches of Eastwick continues through July 15 at Signature Theatre, 2800 S. Stafford Street in Arlington. Ticket prices are $38 through $63 and are available at (800-955-5566) and on line at This production contains strong language and sexual themes and is recommended for mature audiences only (ages 14 and up).

The creative team behind the American premiere of The Witches of Eastwick:

Eric Schaeffer, director

John Dempsey, book and lyrics

Dana P. Rowe, composer

Production photos of The Witches of Eastwick by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Signature Theatre.

No comments: