It’s been back to the drawing board and out with anything resembling subtlety or sophistication in the rehoused and extensively revised “Witches of Eastwick,” producer Cameron Mackintosh’s brave attempt to overhaul his latest original musical, which opened to mixed reviews last summer and has played to middling box office (often less than that) ever since.
Clearly, someone decided it was time to apply a bit of heat to the show in order to generate some in return, which may help explain newcomer Clarke Peters’ rapid-fire delivery of most of his lines — as if pausing for breath were not allowed in the small New England town where the action takes place. Peters has been drafted to replace original lead Ian McShane as the devilish Darryl Van Horne (Jack Nicholson’s screen role), the ceaselessly horny New Yorker whose arrival in Eastwick, R.I., sends a coven of repressed women into a sexually frenzied tailspin.
And whereas McShane — who could neither sing nor dance — often seemed absent from proceedings, a pigtailed Peters is almost too insistently “on,” cozying up to the audience rather more than he leers at the distaff trio who find him “kind of repellent” but succumb all the same. Rasping his way through the songs in a dangerously low register, Peters brings a swaggering authority to Darryl’s opener, “I Love a Little Town.” His tubthumping second-act “The Glory of Me” — replacing McShane’s non-starter of a big number, “Who’s the Man?” — might work better if it weren’t tackily decked out in gaudy trappings that would look out of place even in Vegas.
If Peters is playing to the crowd — “I bought the balls,” he says prior to a game of, uh, tennis — so is a coarsened book by John Dempsey that leaves no innuendo unmined or orgasm un-moaned. Indeed, between all the “in and out” jokes and double entendres, the newly smutty “Witches” seems to have been retooled — sorry — to play the Playboy Mansion. Come to think of it, that’s what Bob Crowley’s configuration of Darryl’s lair resembles, its brothel red in distinct contrast to the postcard backdrops that suggest a diluted version of Crowley’s definitively minimalist New England for the Nicholas Hytner-Mackintosh “Carousel.”
The pervasive leering doesn’t mesh with the highly enjoyable innocence of last summer’s original, which placed the proto-feminist “Witches” in an honorable tradition dating back to “Damn Yankees,” “Bye Bye Birdie” and “Bells Are Ringing,” not, as it seems now, a candidate for the Robin Byrd Show. It’s possible, too, that another performer might leaven the loucheness that Peters flogs to death: Since Kevin Kline, the role’s obvious interpreter, clearly won’t ever do it, what about trying Brian Stokes Mitchell, who would seem capable of delivering as vaudevillian, singer and sex god — the part’s triple requirements — all at once?
The show’s indisputable glory last time lay in the interplay between its central women, the sole remaining one of whom — Joanna Riding’s cellist Jane — now rules over an unequally vibrant roost. (Riding’s seeming ad libs at the airborne first-act finale are laugh-out-loud funny.) Playing the stammering dimwit Sukie, Rebecca Thornhill isn’t yet up to the vocal demands of the delicious patter song, “Words Words Words,” and she tends to fade away next to Josefina Gabrielle’s commandingly danced Alex, the sculptress who specializes, conveniently, in breasts: Gabrielle may not possess Lucie Arnaz’s natural authority, but she moves so well that she brings a giddy lift to “Another Night At Darryl’s,” the second-act opener.
So, in general, does the reordered Dempsey-Dana P. Rowe score that has repositioned one number (“Something”) and rewritten another (“Loose Ends”) in a successful bid to redress the melodic fall-off that occurred in the second half. The talent of these songwriters was never in question. The one that arises is how so compelling a case for an original musical could have been allowed to become a cartoon.