The Witches of Eastwick
There’s a feel of fall in the air, evoking images of colorful leaves on the trees, carved pumpkins and warm apple cider. Halloween is right around the corner, but the Ogunquit Playhouse is getting a head start on the tricks and treats with the American Northeast premiere of producer Cameron MacKintosh’s musical comedy The Witches of Eastwick. Featuring Emmy Award-winner Sally Struthers and a quartet of Broadway veterans in the lead roles, the Ogunquit Playhouse continues its 82-year tradition of creating and staging its exclusive trademark productions with established performers and a first-rate design team.
Based on the 1984 novel by John Updike and subsequent 1987 Warner Brothers film version, The Witches of Eastwick is set in 1967 in the fictional quintessential small town of Eastwick, Rhode Island. The moment in time is relevant as the story incorporates the women’s movement and the sexual revolution, both burgeoning aspects of that social climate, and the location pays homage to Anne Hutchinson, a Puritan leader who was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony to neighboring Rhody for her religious convictions. When he wrote the novel, Updike was living in Ipswich, MA, a stone’s throw from the infamous Salem witch trials of the 17th century, and one might suggest that the spirits of the accused were his muses.
Sara Gettelfinger (Alexandra Spofford), Mamie Parris (Jane Smart) and Nancy Anderson (Sukie Rougemont) are equally terrific as three bored, lonely women, either divorced or widowed, who dream together of the ideal man who might rescue them from their fate. Their wishes conjure up the devilish, randy Darryl Van Horne (James Barbour, voraciously chewing the scenery) whose arrival in town creates a frenzy when he brings temptation into their midst, setting the telephone wires on fire and turning the gossipy populace on its collective ear. The town’s resident busybody and self-anointed moral guardian Felicia Gabriel (Struthers), disturbed by Van Horne’s purchase of the Lenox Mansion, a venerable estate built by her grandfather, and concerned that he will disturb a nearby snowy egret habitat, challenges him for the position of King of the Castle. However, as he tells her, she has no idea who she is dealing with.
Darryl’s main purpose is to seduce Alex, Jane and Sukie by nurturing their artistic talents, releasing their inner creativity and powers. They grow confident and blossom in their chosen pursuits (sculpting, cello playing and writing, respectively), learn to do magic, and the sex ain’t bad, either. Eventually, Darryl has an impact on everyone in town, awakening the womenfolk’s libido, schooling the men on how to please the women and using his three witches’ newfound talent to spell the comeuppance of Felicia. As good as she is at playing the bossy pants side of her character, Struthers is a riot when it comes time for her to choke up a litany of items, including a cherry pit, tennis ball, feathers, a string of pearls and a long-necked egret. When she sings, you barely notice that she capably belts and carries the tune because her forceful delivery is in service of the character, the flag-waving, faux saccharine figure of intolerance.
The vocal chemistry among the three leading women is a treat whenever they harmonize (“Make Him Mine,” “I Wish I May,” “Look At Me”) and each shines in her moment in the spotlight with Barbour in the first act. He has a rich, powerful baritone that can be mellow or raunchy, as called for by the song, and he shows a flair for gospel in “The Glory of Me.” These four pros know how to bring it and elevate The Witches of Eastwick to a higher level than the book and music could reach without their powers. Among the changes in the adaptation from the film to the stage is the addition of Alex’s teenage son Michael and the forbidden apple of his eye, Jennifer, the virginal daughter of Felicia and her long-suffering husband Clyde (Jim Walton, quietly effective). With due praise for the performances of Joey Barriero and Brittney Santoro as the star-crossed lovers, their characters and the cliché of their situation add up to the least interesting aspect of the book and culminate in a scene that requires extreme suspension of disbelief (and that’s saying a lot in a show about magic). Perhaps the movie ending was too challenging to pull off, but the kids distract from the more compelling story lines of the adults.
Several musical numbers are great fun, thanks to Lisa Stevens’ choreography and the energetic ensemble (shout outs for busybody Julia Mosby and Van Horne’s valet Jason Perez). “Dirty Laundry” and “Dance With The Devil” are practically showstoppers, augmented by Dustin Cross’ costumes and Michael Schweikardt’s set design. Great work from Paul Miller (lighting design), Jeremy Oleksa (sound design), Shawn Boyle (projections) and Matthew Holtzclaw (Illusions, Magic Consultant) infuses The Witches of Eastwick with exciting visual and aural effects. Music Director Julian Bigg leads nine live musicians. Director Shaun Kerrison waves his wand over all of the components and - presto! - everything comes together for an entertaining look at the power of believing in yourself.
Book and Lyrics by John Dempsey, Music by Dana Rowe, Orchestrations by William David Brohn, Music Direction/Supervision by Julian Bigg, Choreography by Lisa Stevens, Direction by Shaun Kerrison; Costume Design, Dustin Cross; Lighting Design, Paul Miller; Set Design, Michael Schweikardt; Sound Design, Jeremy Oleksa; Projections, Shawn Boyle; Illusions Magic Consultant, Matthew Holtzclaw; Flying Effects, ZFX, Inc.; Hair & Makeup Design, Britt Griffith; Production Stage Manager, Tracey Woolley
Cast: James Barbour, Sara Gettelfinger, Mamie Parris, Nancy Anderson, Sally Struthers, Jim Walton, Brittney Santoro, Joey Barriero, Lily Ramras, Jason Perez, Julia Mosby, Randall McNeal, Jenny Hickman, Stephen Cerf, Heather Jane Rolff, Jonathan Brody, Marjorie Failoni, Tom Gamblin, Dawn Trautman, Jeffrey Zicker