Emily Skinner, Marc Kudisch, Christiane Noll, and
Jacquelyn Piro Donovan in The Witches of Eastwick
(© Scott Suchman)
Emily Skinner, Marc Kudisch, Christiane Noll, and
Jacquelyn Piro Donovan in The Witches of Eastwick
(© Scott Suchman)
The Witches of Eastwick, the long-aborning musical adaptation of John Updike's novel, is smart, sexy, and smashing, in no small part because the four Broadway veterans starring in the show's U.S. debut at Signature Theatre -- Marc Kudisch, Christiane Noll, Jacquelyn Piro Donovan, and Emily Skinner -- are also smart, sexy, and smashing. Fortunately, they are supported by a lively score, and a book that has moments of broad comedy along with a dark and edgy undercurrent.

It has been seven years since Signature's Eric Schaeffer directed the mildly successful London premiere of Witches, only to watch the show fade into obscurity. With substantial revisions here by Schaeffer (directing again), composer Dana P. Rowe, and lyricist/librettist John Dempsey, Witches now casts a classic spell that may finally propel it to Broadway, provided Schaeffer and company continue to work on a few weak spots and iron out some substantial technical kinks.

Three lonely women in a conservative village naively conjure up their idea of an ideal man, who suddenly arrives in the mysterious form of Darryl Van Horne (Kudisch). Brazen and compelling, he seduces each of the women into his bed, singly and collectively, and magically charms the rest of the townsfolk -- except for the town's nasty morality maven, Felicia (the excellent Kariah Hamilton), who is eventually singled out for retribution. This leads to a crisis of conscience for the bewitching ladies.

The three title roles provide robust platforms for diva-like performances by Donovan as the tongue-tied, insecure newspaper writer Sukie, Noll as the tense and cynical cellist Jane, and Skinner as the struggling sculptor and single parent Alexandra. Each actress is radiant and is given ample opportunity to soar -- literally! While nobody should ever have to follow in the footsteps of Jack Nicholson, who played Van Horne in the film version of Witches, Kudisch wisely blazes his own trail as the "horny little devil." Whereas Nicholson was cool and wily, Kudisch is all testosterone and tongue. He's crude and rude, creating an entirely new template for the character. These four bravura performances also mesh into a tight ensemble effort.

As the mean-spirited Felicia, whose blue nose is out of joint over the carnal cavorting at the Van Horne place, Hamilton forms a face as formidable as a battleship and gives a tour-de-force performance, singing and doing what should be impossible by simultaneously spitting up golf balls, spiders, cherry pits, an egg, and even a tennis ball.

Act I has been restructured since London, and the score has been reworked to include a strong electric rock guitar. Three songs have been cut, with two new ones added to the first act. Kudisch puts his magnificently deep baritone to work in the new "Darryl Van Horne," which provides him a robust entrance, although the song's power is undercut by a kitschy, 1960s pop-rock orchestration that brings to mind the Austin Powers films. Indeed, much of Act I's music seems lightweight in contrast to the compelling singing and the dark ambiance. An exception is the show's prettiest number, the ballad "Waiting for the Music to Begin": Van Horne slyly seduces Alexandra as they play violin and cello, with the tempo and rhythm increasing in sensuality until reaching scorching intensity.

Act II seems scored by a different team, as the 1960s pop is replaced by 1950s Las Vegas-style music. The guitar is sublimated by reeds, trumpet, and trombone as conductor Jon Kalbfleisch creates a sound that fans of Count Basie will enjoy. The act's opener, "Another Night at Darryl's," is a joyous revue number in which our witches sing and strut like magical Maguire Sisters. It's followed by "Dance with the Devil," with the entire cast exploding in a big-band extravaganza. Choreographer Karma Camp follows suit, her dance numbers losing the frug style and evolving into smoother steps.

Walt Spangler's scenic design is simple, dominated by a mobile, 18-foot-high moon and drifting dark clouds over a barren stage area that's ringed at the top by an upside-down white picket fence. Unfortunately, hooking the women up to their flying rigs is clumsily and noisily done onstage in mid-scene, totally eliminating any sense of surprise. Routine movement of set and prop pieces was also surprisingly clumsy on opening night.

Should these problems get fixed, The Witches of Eastwick is sure to haunt audiences in Virginia and elsewhere for many years to come.