- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 19, 2007

With the raging popularity of such recent “you go, girl” musicals as “Wicked,” “Legally Blonde,” “Hairspray” and “The Color Purple,” the idea of a musical about female empowerment hardly seems earth-shattering.

“The Witches of Eastwick,” in its American premiere at Signature Theatre, is a musical comedy based on the 20-year-old movie of the same name that stars Cher, Susan Sarandon and Michelle Pfeiffer as a trio of discontented New Englanders who rediscover their practical magic after some sexual healing from a devilish Jack Nicholson. In the 1980s, this mixture of New Age message of self-discovery and Playgirl-style menage-a-trois must have pumped up many a gal’s shoulder pads. Today, it seems a trifle musty — although director Eric Schaeffer has worked with creators John Dempsey and Dana P. Rowe and producer Cameron Macintosh to update the show for more modern sensibilities.

You are wowed by the production values (not only do the star performers fly, but they also swoop out over the audience) and the almost absurdly talented cast, led by sex machine Marc Kudisch playing the Jack Nicholson role of Darryl Van Horne with a supple voice and sinuous four-way rolls of the hips that would put Apolo Ohno to shame. Yet, the hackneyed notion of women acquiring spiritual liberation and artistic passion via the phallus seems like something cooked up by Bob Guccione after a hot patchouli oil massage.

As Alexandra Spofford, a plus-size woman diminished by her weight, Emily Skinner bears the burden of the unhappy, round-heeled fat woman stereotype with grace, a gorgeous set of pipes and earthy humor. She also exudes confident sensuality, not an easy thing to do when saddled with Alejo Vietti’s costumes, which bear an unfortunate resemblance to the shape-obscuring get-ups Bea Arthur wore for the sitcom “Maude.”

Christiane Noll plays the constricted cellist Jane (Miss Sarandon in the movie) who, in a whiny number, “Waiting for the Song to Begin,” blames a pedantic music teacher for her lousy technique. Although big-voiced and sexy, Miss Noll’s Jane comes across as a self-absorbed snot even when “liberated” by the libidinous Darryl.

Faring far better in the ingratiating department is small-town newspaper reporter Sukie (Miss Pfeiffer onscreen, Jacquelyn Piro Donovan onstage) now a bookworm and closeted poet aching to express herself, which she does via the splendid verbiage and tongue-twisting lyrics of “Words, Words, Words.” Miss Donovan combines expressive singing, a snorting laugh and nuanced humor to give a robust portrait of a woman out of step in the physical world. When seduced by Darryl, Miss Donovan hits the, ahem, high notes with wit and flair.

The emphasis in “Witches” is on sex, and the musical version is tarted up like a prostitute on Easter Sunday. Most of the songs have to do with the horizontal mambo, ranging from the foreplay friskiness of “Another Night at Darryl‘s” to a revival-style big production number, “Dance With the Devil,” which finds the whole town tricked out in black leather dominatrix regalia. Unfortunately, many of the numbers seem like raunched-up “borrows” from other musicals.

Some of the R-rated cheekiness is fun for a while, but it gets tired and desperate by the second act. By the time the nudge-nudge-wink-wink scenario concerning Darryl and his young conquest Jennifer (Erin Driscoll) rolls around, you long for saltpeter to be pumped into Eastwick’s water supply.

Gifted performers and stagecraft go far in gliding over the glitches of a musical. Yet you still need a memorable score, and the music from “Witches” is mediocre at best. Combine that with a frankly demeaning retro perspective that women can only achieve liberation and empowerment through an outside force, such as a man, and you have a “Witches” that bothers more than bewitches.


WHAT: “The Witches of Eastwick” by John Dempsey and Dana P. Rowe

WHERE: Signature Theatre, 2800 S. Stafford St., Arlington

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Through July 15.

TICKETS:$38 to $63

PHONE: 800/955-5566

WEB SITE: www.signature-theatre.org


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