Playing the lead role as part beast and part snake, an athletic Marc Kudisch has a devilishly good time carrying the newly revamped “Witches of Eastwick” on a mostly enjoyable ride in its U.S. premiere at Arlington’s Signature Theater. The Cameron Mackintosh musical is now decidedly darker than the version that debuted at London’s Drury Lane Theater seven years ago, also with Signature’s a.d. Eric Schaeffer at the helm.
The tuner’s circuitous route to the U.S. follows the initial 750-perf London run that played to mixed reviews and so-so business, along with productions in Melbourne, Moscow and Prague. Collaborators John Dempsey (book and lyrics) and Dana P. Rowe (music) have extensively reworked the show for American auds to give it more edge and bawdiness, adding two new numbers and cutting three. As a result, all innocence has been fully exorcised, save for the adorable little girl who periodically skips back and forth to contrast with the smuttiness.
The team also decided that London auds simply didn’t “get” John Updike’s distinctly American tale — one reason Schaeffer was invited to try again on home soil. Playing in Signature’s newly constructed 260-seat black-box theater, dubbed the Max, the show gets its opportunity in a most intimate setting. The capabilities of the new space are also being tested in this high-tech production, which requires the principals to become airborne. Following a one-week delay of the scheduled press opening to iron out the kinks, all is now working smoothly.
Along with casting Kudisch as the sexually obsessed Darryl Van Horne (Jack Nicholson in the 1987 Warner Bros. film), Schaeffer has tapped Broadway vets Emily Skinner, Christiane Noll and Jacquelyn Piro Donovan as the trio of bored and horny women eager to shake up their sleepy Rhode Island town. It’s an inspired choice, with three strong voices delivering on the many lively numbers and stepping nicely to choreographer Karma Camp’s routines. They also ace their comedic assignments, which call for heavy doses of sarcasm.
Noll is particularly strong as cellist Jane, her delightful soprano voice setting the standard for the trio. Donovan is in tune as the perky but dimwitted Sukie, who clearly relishes her moment with the devilish Darryl in first-act number “Words, Words, Words.” Skinner is dead-on as ribald sculptress Alexandra, making the most of the new act-one tune “Your Wildest Dreams.”
The trio keep the cauldron stirring throughout as the hedonistic gals who discover their newfound, wicked powers. They get to signal their intentions early on in their first big number, “Make Him Mine,” and open act two in ribald fashion with the deliciously entertaining “Another Night at Darryl’s.”
Kudisch is truly in his element as the swaggering interloper eager to beguile everyone who crosses his path. Clad Hugh Hefner-style in silky red pajamas or strutting confidently among the wary locals, Kudisch gives maximum attitude as he grabs for crotches and other body parts without discrimination. “Class is in session,” he sneers confidently when he finally gives the terrorized townsmen a lesson in how to satisfy women. At times, one could easily think it was Nicholson on the stage — a Nicholson who can dance, that is.
Kudisch’s strong baritone voice is on display from the very start thanks to the flashy and tuneful new number “Darryl Van Horne,” which replaces “I Love a Little Town.” The cockiness continues in the second act’s “Dance With the Devil,” another musical highlight.
Other standouts include Karlah Hamilton as vilified village prude Felicia and Signature regular Harry Winter as her henpecked husband.
Along with emphasizing the tuner’s darker themes at every turn, director Schaeffer goes heavy on movement, lechery and, of course, cynicism. Totally in sync is Camp’s delightful choreography, especially in the ensemble routines. Dance highlight is the funny towel-snapping number “Dirty Laundry,” which showcases Hamilton and crew in act one, and Darryl and the girls in the act-two reprise.
Walt Spangler’s set features satanic red lights and quickly disappearing furniture, accented with an enormous full moon and clouds. Chris Lee’s lighting instantly switches moods from stormy eeriness to blazing sun.
Dempsey and Rowe are the team that created “The Fix,” another Macintosh produced tuner staged by Signature that is still awaiting wider recognition. Whether the same fate awaits “Witches” remains to be seen. Like “The Fix,” it is a funny and enjoyable show with obvious audience appeal and a laudable ability to laugh at itself. But it may find a more welcome niche as a regional offering than a Broadway staple.
The score, for the most part, is inviting but not especially memorable. The new addition “Darryl Van Horne” adds spice, but a stronger number to define Alexandra would help it further. Yet the total package is an extremely appealing transformation of a popular film to the stage, one that’s now faithful to Updike’s book about repressed New Englanders. And it definitely gets an A for attitude.