Wickedly Good Fun

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It has not been a healthy year for musical theater in London for so long during the '80s and early '90s the powerhouse art form in this 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 its nose up at the medieval sex-and-scandal-fest La Cava. Just when it had begun to look as if such dull fare would be the norm, along comes the most famous of British producers to inject excitement into the West End musical once more.

Cameron Mackintosh has conquered the world with a slew of original musicals Les Miserables 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 false 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 provide a long West End run, never mind Broadway. There was also The Fix at London's Donmar Warehouse by two young Americans and new Mackintosh discoveries, John Dempsey and Dana P. Rowe. But the reviewers pounced again, and audiences and journalists 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 also made into a movie, starring Jack Nicholson, 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 week, the producer did not even wait for the dust to settle on the catastrophe of The Fix: "The Fix was only John and my third attempt at a show," says Rowe. "The day after the dreadful reviews came out, Cameron took us out for lunch and said, 'What are you going to write next?'"

Mackintosh showed them a list of movie titles from the Warner catalogue and suggested they pick one. Rowe says the choice was easy: "John Updike followed classic musical theater form when he created this story. There are all these vivid characters. The idea of writing for three women, exploring that mix of voices, was incredibly attractive. And the role of Darryl Van Horne naturally translates to a patter role half-speaking the songs like Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady so that the energy coming from him is scattered, and dangerous."

Witches is playing at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, the venue which until recently housed Miss Saigon. If Rowe valiantly denies feeling the pressure of the occasion even in the face of the hundreds of posters hyping the show on the walls and buses of London the businessmen of theater are alert to its importance. "Musical theater," says Rupert Rhymes, chief executive of the Society of London Theatres (SOLT), "is a great export of creative Britain. You can link his work to hard economic facts, and then governments start to take notice." Jed Bernstein, president of the League of American Theatres and Producers, adds, "No industry is built upon one person, but Cameron has done so much that he is immensely significant to Broadway." Mackintosh's financial importance was highlighted in a 1998 solt report Phantom alone grossed more than $2.8 billion worldwide

The odds this time are looking good. Witches may not be perfect, but it is a wickedly enjoyable show. Dempsey and Rowe have, wisely, picked and chosen elements from the book and the film, and added a few inventions to suit the stage. The story concerns a trio of small-town suburban witches who conjure up a demon, one Darryl Van Horne, to satisfy 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. The movie tones down the nastiness and goes for spectacle. This show cleverly uses a traditional musical comedy format (breaking away from the quasi-operatic monotony of recent years) to underline the satire. The writers employ broad brushstrokes, almost a storybook simplicity, and, except where they sometimes 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 huge, 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 a Sondheim. The cast is generally excellent. Ian McShane as Darryl Van Horne is almost too attractive for his role. But he oozes the right monstrous charisma for the part, and breathes fire into his hellishly hot rock'n'roll number, Dance with the Devil.

His coven complement each other beautifully Lucie Arnaz sassy and streetwise as Alexandra, and Joanna Riding tight-lipped, then tempestuous, as Jane. But it is Maria Friedman as Sukie who has the 24-carat voice that touches the heart. A shame then, that she so overdoes her character's clumsiness in the opening scenes.

The three really come into their own at the end of the first act. As they sing their hearts out for their hearts' desires, Darryl's flame-licked lounge yawns into view, and they literally hit the heights flying into the auditorium. With that wonderful theatrical effect, Rowe and Dempsey have their justification for 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.