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In Loving Memory of the 'Witches'.
Witches of Eastwick
Member Name: monalipschitz
Witches of Eastwick
Date: 09/12/01, updated on 10/12/01 (1001 review reads)
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Thus on the 27th October
2001 the final curtain came down on one of the brightest jewels in the crown of the West End. And what a show was lost to theatre-goers everywhere. Written by Dana P. Rowe (music) and John Dempsey (book and lyrics) a relatively new musical writing duo whose previous works include 'The Fix' at the Donmar Warehouse a few years ago. The show is based on a combination of both the book by John Updike and the 1987 Warner Bros film of the same name. If you know one, or both, of these then you'll recognise most of the show, but not all. Rowe and Dempsey have cleverly combined elements from both previous versions to create a third, almost separate, identity.
The plot begins inconspicuously enough. Three lonely ladies from the town of Eastwick dream of romance and together they conjure it up in the shape of the Devillish Darryl Van Horne. Van Horne then proceeds to seduce all of them in turn bringing out a side of their characters none had dared explore before. But with such freedom comes the repurcussions that reverberate throughout the sleepy town and have dire consequences for more than one inhabitant. A village frozen in time until the Devil arrives to thaw it out.
For the original show a cast of incredible repute and considerable talent was recruited. The key to the shows success was to be it's Darryl. Shoul
d he fail then the show would fail too. After extensive searching Ian McShane was cast, star of Televisions 'Lovejoy' he was well known to a wide audience. He also had sex appeal. Although not known for his musical abilities McShane aquitted himself well. HIs deep voice, more Rex Harrison than Michael Ball, fitted with his interpretation of the Devil and he did manage to sizzle his way through the show. At least in the beginning. By the time the show changed venue his performance was lack-lustre and perfunctory. Enter Clarke Peters. A well known and very fine musical performer with such credits as Billy Flynn in 'Chicago' under his belt. Peters breathed new life into the show; a sexy devil who could also sing and dance.
The character of Alexandra Spofford, the artistic eldest of the three witches, was taken by American star Lucie Arnaz. Daughter of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, Lucie has be appearing in musicals stateside for years and added authenticity to teh American-ness of the show. Giving a performance that US polish, Arnaz seemed slightly ill at ease as the earth-mother of the piece but that shouldn't detract from a great performance, and some really good legs! When Armaz flew back the USA her role was taken over by Joesphine Gabrielle, another West End performer whose credits include the recent RNT version of 'Oklahoma!' Again Gabrielle sparked new interest in the show.
Maria Friedman, well known to audiences almost everywhere from Casualty and more recently Chicago, took on the role of Sukie Rougemont; the shy local journalist who has trouble finding the 'words, words, words'. Another electrifying performance ensued. Her rendition of the complicated patter song 'Words, Words, Words' (which, incidentally, she requested in order that Sukie could have the same release as the other girls) was breath-taking and stopped the show. Juxtapose that with her haunting 'Loose Ends', in which she r
eveals her pain at having never had a father, and hers was a deeply touching performance that moved me to tears. Yet she inevitably left and in her place came Rebecca Thornhill, soon to be seen in 'The Full Monty', another great musical performer. Unfortunately for her she followed Maria and however good Thornhill was Friedman's shoes were hard to fill.
The final leading character of Janey Smart, the repressed music teacher, was filled by an inspired piece of casting: Joanna Riding. Already an accomplished performer having worked extensively at the RNT, Riding was the only one of the leads not to leave after a year but to stay on to the bitter end. With a wonderful voice that easily soared through her main solo, 'Waiting For The Music To Begin', perhaps the most dramatic of the three girls release songs. Riding simply was Jane Smart, it is impossible to imagine any other actress perform the role with such dexterity; a good dancer and able actor Joanna has just moved back to Drury Lane to take over from Martine McCutcheon as Eliza Dolittle in 'My Fair Lady'. Stardom looms. Maybe even world domination.
The role of Felicia Gabriel, town gossip and self-appointed moral crusader, although not one of the leads was perhaps one of the most difficult. Where to find an actress, of a certain age, with such a wide vocal range, the ability to act well, dance and do magic tricks? In Rosemary Ashe, that's where! Staying for the full length of the run, Ashe dressed in a array of outrageous outfits with matching hair enlivened the stage at every opportunity, stealing scenes from nearly every other performer. Her big number where she leads the company in 'Dirty Laundry' was something that had to be heard to be believed.
It is of great credit to all involved; director Eric Shaeffer, Choreographers Bob Avian and Stephen Mear as well as production designer Bob Crowely that the large cast never felt like a large
cast. Each and every member of the company had a distinct personality which was reflected in not only the dialogue of various scenes but also in the individualistic costumes and unique chroreography. Watching the routines in this show offered a refreshing change from productions like 'West Side Story', where all the dancers do exactly the same thing and moves as one collective character called 'the chorus'. Here we saw a village dancing, real people of all shapes and sizes dancing just the way you or I would. There aren't many other musicals where you'd find out that Eudora had a house full of cats or Franny told war stories unless they were the leads.
The 1950's set was also highly distincticve. Resembling, and indeed I believe based on, a typical New England Village there was a really strong sense that Eastwick was "perfect": sets although "larger than life" and almost cartoon-ish were like something out of a picture postcard from Long Island, with perfect picket fences surrounding perfect lived. Well groomed hills loomed on the horizon (or rather upstage) and the idealistic church, which is blown up near the end added a sense of latent danger and power to the production. The lighting complimented the set briliantly; at times dazzling, reflecting the clean brightness of day, and at other times darkly sensuous.
One of the main attractions of this show, and the reason I initially went to see it, was the spectacular flying sequence. 'The Making of...' documentary shown nationally just before the show opened highlighted the flying and just watching small sections sent shivers down my spine. The effect was no less thrilling in real life. At Darryl's house the Witches finallly realsie thier dreams and take flight under Van Horne's guidance, a metaphor for sexual freedom maybe. With closed eyes and uttering the prayer "Let it..." the three women magically rose and flew over,
yes over, the audience before vanishing into the rafters. Sadly after the move the flying scene was curtailed due to space and expense. Inevitably a small amount of the magic was aslo lost.
However there were some problems. Some aspects of the didn't seem to work no matter what changes occured. The most stricking instance being the inclusion of the young lovers. Alexandra's son Michael and the Gabriel's daughter Jennifer were cut from the movie version and one can understand why. Offering a more traditional romantic theme of boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back, they detracted from the action. Given the sappy song 'Something' their innocence didn't provide a refreshing contrast to the darker elements of the show as it was intended to, they just irritated. It was nothing to do witht he capable performances of Peter Joback or Caroline Sheen, it was just that the change of pace never worked... not matter where it was placed (and it was constantly changed). They seemed like they were out of a different musical. World even.
Another complaint was that the show was not instantly hummable. If by that detractors meant that certain tunes were not threaded through the show numerour times at every available opportunity then they were right. The audience didn't leave having heard only one or two strong melodies, they left having heard many, and that can cause a problem. Once heard a few times they stick with you but at a one off event like a theatrical performance, unless worked into a score like Andrew Lloyd Webber, that is the perennial dilemma: saturate a show so that people leave hummimg after one hearing but get bored quickly with the repetitive nature, or keep it interesting for many viewings? I know which I prefer, you decide which one you'd like.
If any of this has intrigued you and you'd like to know what I've been droning on about for so long then the show is survuved by it's Cast
Album featuring the original production so it doesn't include the changes made after the February 2001 transfer. Thus Van Horne's signature number of 'Who's The Man' is included rather than it's replacement 'The Glory of Me'. For me 'Who's The Man' was an incredibly enjoyable song, even though it didn't necessarily fullfil all of the requirements of an eleventh hour song, so don't think you'd be losing out by hearing that instead. 'Something' is also still in it's original position, and for me it is at it's least intrusive there.
'The Witches of Eastwick' had a marvellous West End life in both it's incarnations and yes it had it's flaws. But did it deserve to close like that? The answer has to be 'No'! The colourful characters, the brilliant performers, clever lyrics, strong melodies, unique choreography and innovative staging of Eastwick will be sadly missed by all those lucky enough to have been caught in it's spell. Rest In Peace 'Witches' ... until next time...
... In America, Australia, Russia, Japan and Scandinavia ... maybe even a UK tour?
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