Blockbuster Bewitched

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It has not been a healthy year for musical theater in London, for so long- during the 1980s and early '90s-the powerhouse art form in the city. So far, audiences have marked and mocked French imports Notre-Dame de Paris and Lautrec, scorned the Dickens out of Hard Times and turned up their noses at the medieval sex-and-scandal-fest La Cava. Just when it had begun to look as if such dull fare would remain the norm, along comes Britain's most successful producer to inject excitement into the West End musical once again.

Cameron Mackintosh has conquered the world with a slew of originals-Les Misérables has played in 194 cities, and both Cats and The Phantom of the Opera have outgrossed Titanic, the highest-grossing movie ever. But it has been 10 years since he last sent a new show-Miss Saigon-on its merry international way, and as these older ones begin to close, the global industry hungers for more.

For Mackintosh, the past decade has been marked more by aborted lift-offs than theatrical rockets (a successful revival of Lionel Bart's classic musical Oliver! notwithstanding). His Martin Guerre was revamped twice before the British critics eventually approved, and even that failed to secure a long West End run, never mind Broadway. There was also The Fix, written by two young Mackintosh discoveries, John Dempsey and Dana P. Rowe. But the reviewers pounced again, and audiences and critics around the world began to start wondering whether Mackintosh had lost his touch.

Much, then, is riding on his latest venture, a $7 million version of John Updike's novel The Witches of Eastwick, which was made into a movie, starring Jack Nicholson and Cher, in 1987. Demonstrating the loyalty and belief that have characterized his career, Mackintosh decided to stick with Dempsey and Rowe. Indeed, as Rowe, the composing half of the double act, said last month, the producer did not even wait for the dust to settle on the catastrophe of The Fix: "The day after the dreadful reviews came out, Cameron took us out for lunch and said, ŒWhat are you going to write next?' "

With The Witches of Eastwick-now playing at Miss Saigon's former venue, the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane-the odds are looking as good as the hype that has plastered London's walls and buses with advertisements. While far from perfect, it's a wickedly enjoyable show. Dempsey and Rowe have, wisely, chosen elements from both the book and the film, and added a few inventions tailored for the stage. The story concerns a trio of small-town suburban witches who conjure up a demon, one Darryl Van Horne, to relieve their loneliness. Van Horne, a horny little devil, soon has the women at his mercy and in his bed. Then it all starts to go to hell.

Updike's book is a vicious joke at provincial America's expense, involving numerous murders and other suitably Satanic goings-on. George Miller's movie toned down the nastiness and went for spectacle instead. This show cleverly uses a traditional musical-comedy format (breaking away from the quasi-operatic mode that has become monotonously popular in recent years) to underscore the satire. The writers use broad brushstrokes, almost a storybook simplicity, and, with occasional exceptions when they overplay the comedy, it works brilliantly.

Director Eric Schaeffer's witty staging takes place mostly in a cardboard cut-out box set beneath an idyllic cyclorama of rolling, apple-green hills upon which sit rows of spanking-white Eastwick houses. Occasionally he brings in a big production set piece, such as a flashing telephone pole to indicate the town gossips excitedly calling their neighbors. Generally, though, he relies upon sure stagecraft, exquisite costumes and, above all, energetic choreography by Bob Avian and Stephen Mear.

Dempsey's lyrics are exceptionally witty, and Rowe's music jaunty and tuneful, yet with the sophisticated sweep of Stephen Sondheim. The cast is generally excellent. Ian McShane as Van Horne is almost too attractive for his role. But he oozes the right monstrous charisma, and breathes fire into his hellishly hot rock'n'roll number, Dance with the Devil.

The members of his coven complement each other beautifully-Lucie Arnaz sassy and streetwise as Alexandra; Joanna Riding tight-lipped, then tempestuous, as Jane. But it is Maria Friedman, as Sukie, whose 24-carat voice touches the emotions.

The three really come into their own at the end of the first act. As they sing their hearts out, Darryl's flame-licked lounge yawns into view, and they literally hit the heights-flying into the auditorium. That spellbinding theatrical effect alone justifies Rowe and Dempsey's efforts in bringing this story to the stage. This show has heart, humor, good tunes-and if that is not enough to provide Mackintosh with another blockbuster, he'll have to turn to black magic.