The Theatreguide.London Review
The Witches of Eastwick
Drury Lane Theatre, then Prince of Wales 2000-01
The latest Cameron Mackintosh-produced spectacular is a musical version of the John Updike novel and hit film about the small-town ladies seduced and empowered by a smooth-talking devil.
And it's pretty darned good. In fact, I'll go so far as to say it's the best new musical of 1958.
Creators John Dempsey (book and lyrics) and Dana P. Rowe (music) have deliberately turned their backs on 40 years of musical theatre history - no sung-through score, no operatic pretensions, no pseudo-rock – to take their inspiration from the best pop music of the 1950s and the Broadway musical construction of that golden age.
As a result, those with long memories will find echoes or at least reminders of past shows throughout the evening. The opening number, introducing the town of Eastwick, is straight out of Plain and Fancy. The devil's first number conjures up images of Robert Preston in The Music Man, and so on.
There are hints of Damn Yankees, Li'l Abner, Destry and Gypsy sprinkled through the score. Meanwhile, Eric Schaeffer's direction honours all the conventions of 1950s musicals, and the choreography by Bob Avian and Stephen Mear has the athleticism of Michael Kidd.
And none of that is meant as criticism. If Witches is a bit of a pastiche, it's a very good one, and they had the sense to be inspired by first-class models. I'd far rather see this than another turgid Les Mis clone.
The three women are equally excellent. It's no surprise that Lucie Arnaz, as the artistic one, can play a brassy American broad without working up a sweat, but the authentic brassy American broadness she brings is a definite plus.
It's no surprise that Joanna Riding, as the sensitive musical one, can sing the pants off anyone else in the cast, but it's nice to listen to her. It is a bit of a surprise that Maria Friedman, who has been wooden in everything else I've seen her in, has a real comic flair as the ditzy one.
As Darryl van Horne, Ian McShane (best known as TV's Lovejoy) can't sing - he talks his songs, like Robert Preston did - or dance - all the numbers are choreographed around him.
But he brings a powerful sexual presence and great comic timing to the role, and the energy level drops significantly when he's not around.
The songs are good, with a couple having potential as standards. Each of the three seductions is a good comic number, and each of the women gets an emotion-filled straight song as well.
The best are the trios that let them create a lovely harmony: Make Him Mine, I Wish I May, and Look at Me.
A new subplot involving a pair of young lovers doesn't add much to the show but justifies its existence by providing a valid motivation for the witches' rebellion at the end.
And someone has kept Cameron Mackintosh's impulse toward elephantism in check. Production values are relatively (and appropriately) modest, by his standards, so the one really big effect - the witches' flying - isn't lost among other visual noise, and is as enchanting and wonder-inspiring as you could wish.
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