Fans of Cher, and big hair, will remember that The Witches of Eastwick, John Updike’s underwhelming comic novel about a trio of sex-starved New England women and the deal they make with the devil, went regrettably Hollywood in the late 1980s. Now, or rather some years ago, it’s been musicalized (by composer Dana P. Rowe) and sitcommed (by quip-prone book writer John Dempsey, who might as well have asked Rowe to include a few rim shots in the score) to within an inch of its cheerfully naughty, awkwardly feminist life.
I say “now,” because as you may have heard, the version that played London back in 2000—and which has since been languishing, mostly, in what Hollywood would call turnaround—has been nipped and tucked and tweaked for its United States premiere at the Signature Theatre. Not having seen his West End production, I can’t say if Eric Schaeffer’s second pass at the show is an improvement, so I’ll just say that Schaeffer’s staging in the bigger of his two new black-box theaters feels both ambitious and underwhelming—sometimes simultaneously.
Ambitious, because Signature has cast a few Broadway names, ranging from the luminary (Marc Kudisch) to the less-than (we’ll just let that pass), and set them to play on a glossy black floor backed by sullen, constantly drifting storm clouds and a giant Indiglo moon that keeps a kind of tidal tick-tock back and forth at the rear of the stage. Also: There’s flying, as you might expect in a story about witches.
Underwhelming, because while the Signature team keeps finding ways to reconfigure the playing area, with hearths and bars and bedsteads that come whizzing out of dark corners you hadn’t even realized were corners, none of it coalesces into a real sense of place; this Eastwick could be pretty much anywhere, which makes it feel like nowhere.
And underwhelming because in that nowhere, the cast (when they aren’t grooving to the salaciously seductive come-ons of Kudisch’s Darryl Van Horne, more on that in a minute), tend to clump a bit. There’s a lot of front-and-center, which come to think of it, may be why you don’t notice the corners earlier.
The tunes are a blandly cheery lot enlivened by the occasional clever riff on something you know, or think you do; I’m pretty sure there’s a quote from Cole Porter’s “I’ve Come to Wive It Wealthily in Padua” (and then a brief pastiche of the wedding chorale from Stephen Sondheim’s Company) in the run-up to a climactic sequence at the altar, and I’m all but certain there’s a jazzy little quote from Rhapsody in Blue just before the curtain. Otherwise the tunes are about what you’d expect: Lots of Disneyfied melismatic crooning for the young couple (the kind of thing meant to be re-recorded by Peabo and Céline), a nice rant about “Evil” for Karlah Hamilton’s round-the-bend Felicia, and a trio of supposedly character-defining numbers for the three leading ladies (Emily Skinner, Christiane Noll, and Jacquelyne Piro Donovan). The latter, whose initial defining insecurity is that she can’t find the right words when she tries to make conversation with anyone who’s not a close friend, finds her awakening in—what else?—a patter song that goes downright runaway-train by the fourth verse. ’Nuff said?
The show’s not quite a success, but neither is it a failure—not least because it’s got a triumph front and center in the form of Kudisch’s leering, jeering, wantonly wiggly Darryl. Kudisch is an honest-to-God presence, anchoring every scene he’s in with that curious contained charisma only genuine stars emanate: It insists (never argues, never hopes) that the audience’s eyes belong on him.
Which is OK, ’cause—aside from a sequence that wraps Signature regulars from Erin Driscoll to Amy McWilliams to Ilona Dulaski in form-fitting, flame-trimmed pleather bondage gear and sets them writhing atop a lime-green soda fountain—there’s not really much else that’s terribly exciting to watch.