All four stars of "The Witches of Eastwick" take flight at one point or another in Signature Theatre's American premiere of the musical, which will play through July 15 in the larger of its two theaters in Shirlington Village.
Three are the witches themselves: Emily Skinner, Christiane Noll and Jacquelyn Piro Donovan. The fourth is the devilish Marc Kudisch as the seductive dark master.
All four could have flown here directly from Broadway, for they have all headlined there. Together, they lead a colorful and tuneful musical with a darker side that emerges mostly in the second act.
"Witches" is based on the novel by John Updike, which was made into a memorable movie 20 years ago. The musical debuted in London in 2001 under the command of Signature's Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer, who takes the project up again with a few new songs by composer Dana P. Rowe and lyricist John Dempsey. Schaeffer's approach is very effective in the early going and hits a fabulous stride with a trio of songs in the first act; but the finale of that act drags as the flying effect is prepared, and the second act turns too far to the dark side at times.
Kudisch was last seen here at Signature three years ago as Vincent van Gogh in the much darker and certainly less humorous musical "The Highest Yellow." Since then he's starred in "Assassins," "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" and "The Apple Tree" on Broadway.
For "The Apple Tree" he played, among other parts, the devil's representative in the garden of Eden: the snake. Now he's advanced to the rank of full devil, utilizing some of the same reptilian writhing that marked his performance in the "Tree." He delivers a smashing performance that drives the story along, enticing each of the "witches" out of their limiting inhibitions and, in the process, releasing their powers; which, when they collaborate, can be awesome. His flippant way with a smart line marks his dialogue scenes, while his strong emphasis on rhythm and full voice make his musical scenes memorable. Combined, it is one of the highest-energy performances to be seen on local musical stages in quite a while.
THE LEADING LADIES deliver three highly distinctive performances and work together well to establish a sense of camaraderie that is a pleasure to watch. Individually, their singing is strong. Each has a major number with Kudisch in the first act that establishes the specific inhibition that the devil can help them overcome.
For Noll, making her Signature debut after a career that has included staring in "Jekyll & Hyde" on Broadway, it is playing the cello that is the key ("Waiting for the Music to Begin"). For Donovan, who starred in Signature's production of "110 In The Shade," it is her wish that she could speak as well as she can write ("Words, Words, Words"). For Skinner, who also had her Broadway debut in "Jekyll & Hyde" and who went on to such shows as "Side Show" and "The Full Monty," the key is coming to terms with her own body image ("Your Wildest Dreams").
Dempsey and Rowe's score includes a few up-tempo delights for the entire cast, as well as the big solos, duets and trios. There is a big number in the first act for the entire population of the town of Eastwick ("Dirty Laundry") for which choreographer Karma Camp came up with a nifty towel dance, and a big "Dance With The Devil" number which gets toes tapping in the second act as Kudisch teaches a nerdy teenager (James Gardner) a few moves designed to help him win the winsome girl of his dreams, Erin Driscol.
Harry A. Winter gets to practice his drunk act as the husband of the town shrew, Karlah Hamilton who gets her comeuppance in a too violent scene only slightly obscured by the use of strobe lights. As Hamilton plays the part, the shrew is slightly less cartoonish than should be the case to set up such a tragic end; she has to do an unsightly regurgitation bit twice, which is at least once too often.
The chorus includes a host of familiar faces for Signature regulars. There's Sherri L. Edelen and Amy McWilliams cavorting as townspeople along with Thomas Adrian Simpson and Matt Connor. Each is a lot of fun.
With a gigantic moon as the principal set piece â€” which is lit in various colors depending on the mood of the scene and which reflects off the highly polished floor â€” the show is a highly polished production that is bright and fun in the first act. While it continues to have high points in the second act, "Witches" turns dark enough to keep some from calling it a musical comedy â€” instead, refer to it as just "a musical."
Brad Hathaway reviews music and theater in Virginia, Washington and Maryland as well as Broadway, and edits Potomac Stages, a Web site covering theater in the region (www.PotomacStages.com). He can be reached at Brad@PotomacStages.com.