There’s sorcery in triplicate in “The Witches of Eastwick,” Cameron Mackintosh’s first new West End musical in four years, and it comes in the collectively comely form of Maria Friedman, Joanna Riding and an altogether bewitching Lucie Arnaz, in a ravishing British stage debut. Talk about coven chic! As long as its ladies are onstage batting out the most arresting numbers of John Dempsey and Dana P. Rowe’s eclectic and (in the first act, anyway) immensely likable score, “Witches” pretty much leaves one flying — just as its distaff leads are seen doing prior to intermission: “Peter Pan” was never like this.
There’s another side to this stage “Witches,” however, just as there was a darkness to John Updike’s 1984 novel, whose intricately layered and moody black comedy would seem tricky to shift to the stage. (The star-laden 1987 Warner Bros. film barely even tried.)
As ripe for a frolic as the women are, one wishes they had a suitable match in Ian McShane, who is going to need all the goodwill a British audience can muster to get him through a song-and-dance assignment in which, more often than not, a game performer simply seems bewildered.
Nonetheless, there’s no disputing a future life for “Witches,” aided by new casting combinations that could make a richer whole out of some decidedly variable parts. (Paging Kevin Kline or Brian Stokes Mitchell, either of whom might send the show soaring.) One eagerly awaits the show’s next incarnation, by which point Rowe and Dempsey may have rejiggered a score whose undeniable glories occur more or less all in the first act, followed in quick succession by four second-act clunkers. Luckily, the show’s most exultant number is its final one: a hymn to women as “a perfect work of art” in a musical that will never be that but, at its best, is wonderful fun.
That fun may constitute the show’s biggest surprise amid an era in which original musicals both terrific (Broadway’s “The Wild Party”) and terrible (“Parade”) come painted, metaphorically, in hellish hues. An initial glimpse of Bob Crowley’s brightly colored sets — in scenic terms, “Witches” riffs on the New England minimalism first explored in Crowley’s work on “Carousel” — sets us up for a vivid Norman Rockwell-style cartoon, until the action shifts to Darryl Van Horne’s sex palace, here merrily reimagined as a small-town Rhode Island Playboy manse.
Howard Harrison’s gaudy lighting is as brash and bold as Eric Schaeffer’s direction, which mostly eschews implication and innuendo — except of the salacious sort built into the show’s book. (With Arnaz playing a sculptress specializing in the female anatomy, the climate is doubly ripe for quips about “balls” and “boobs.” A tennis court scene helps, too.)
And why not settle for fun? After all, not everything can be Sondheim. Indeed, this may be the first major new American score in years not to sound semi-immersed in America’s reigning composer-lyricist, despite a dazzling first-act patter song (“Words, Words, Words”) that must rank in difficulty with “Another Hundred People” from “Company.” More often than not, the show’s aural forebears are Frank Loesser, Cy Coleman and Jule Styne in songs ranging from anthem (“Look at Me”) to the torchy (“Another Night at Darryl’s”) and the plaintive (“I Wish I May,” the wistful tune to which the women take flight).
“Witches” bears not a trace of the mega-musical revolution of the last few decades that its producer, Mackintosh, pioneered. Yes, “Witches” has its effects, but they tend toward the human sort, with the aerial ascent of the ladies a visual grace note far more emotionally gratifying than any number of helicopters, barricades and plunging chandeliers. Even choreographically, the show is a throwback, with Bob Avian and Stephen Mear’s steps seemingly oblivious to the dance revolution that has awakened Broadway of late.
As a result, for all its technological demands (Schaeffer’s staging finesses them notably well), “Witches” harks back to a now-vanished era when musical comedy proliferated — “Bells Are Ringing,” “Bye Bye Birdie” and even “Grease” are the recognizable antecedents.
Dempsey’s book characterizes the women far more deftly (and economically) than the movie, and it may simply be in the nature of the material that the victimized Felicia continues to seem the plot’s hateful fall gal, notwithstanding the deliriously shrill brio with which Rosemary Ashe attacks the part.
The score doesn’t put a note wrong in the first act, establishing from the outset (in “Eastwick Knows”) the workings of a town turned on by gossip. “Make Him Mine,” a rousing trio for the female fantasists, comes next, followed by a succession of songs that release the rapacious woman in Arnaz’s artist, Friedman’s wordsmith and Riding’s teacher-cellist.
Revelations of character all, the numbers possess such variety (given their frankly erotic context, one is tempted to call them “orgasmic”) that it seems a double cheat when Friedman’s Sukie, for instance, must settle later for the mawkish “Loose Ends,” a supposed song of consolation to the newly orphaned Jennifer Gabriel (Caroline Sheen, sounding like Betty Boop).
One could argue “Witches” loses its way the more it strays from its central women. That’s certainly true of juvenile leads Sheen and Peter Joback, the creepily miscast lovers saddled with “Something,” a love song.
An apt physical match to the “bearish dark man” of Updike’s novel, a paunchy McShane acts the book scenes with genuine flair, and he’s an oasis of calm compared to the movie’s Jack Nicholson.
But the production unwisely has him leading two second-act ensemble numbers with all the vigor of a Vegas lounge lizard who has seen better days. Surrounding him is the plumpest male chorus in memory, whose female counterparts get Crowley’s more extraordinary clothes. (Eastwick may be stuck in time, but its denizens apparently love their outre togs.)
Despite the worrisome second act, there’s too much theatrical savvy not to save the best for last, with the women forsaking Darryl for a bravura embrace of self-affirmation that may do for single girls what “I Am What I Am” from “La Cage Aux Folles” once did for gay men.
The finish may be too full-throttle for British audiences, unaccustomed as they are to stage anthems of an un-ironic sort. But watch Arnaz, Friedman and Riding stride forward, their voices a heavenly study in harmony, and you find three nightly travelers to the theater’s roof depositing a rapt audience right there.