I loved The Witches of Eastwick when it premiered at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane a year ago; and now, revamped, significantly recast and transferred to the more intimate Prince of Wales, it has become the show it should perhaps have been all along: small, cartoonish and smart, rather than spectacular, inflated and overblown.
Maybe the show was a victim of being overproduced before, which unduly burdened its light comedy and effervescent tunefulness. It also suffered from some performances that were also on the wrong scale, not to mention musical scales, with original leading man Ian McShane out of his vocal depth in the pivotal role of Darryl van Horne, the stranger who comes to Eastwick and awakens the passions of three lonely girlfriends and the hostility of the rest of the townsfolk.
Now, with Clarke Peters exhibiting classical musical theatre assurance and a lethal, cocksure sexual arrogance, we have not only the right man for the part, but one who gives the show a central focus and reclaims it from the trio of 'witches' who fall under his spell. They, too, are now properly an ensemble, rather than three star turns competing for attention. While Joanna Riding, the best of the previous set, has remained as Jane Smart, and remains as sexy as she is funny, the two newcomers - Josefina Gabrielle as Alexandra Spofford and Rebecca Thornhill as Sukie Rougemont - are serious improvements.
Rosemary Ashe and Stephen Tate, meanwhile, reprise their splendid comic double-act as the awful Felicia Gabriel and her terminally depressed husband Clyde; and Caroline Sheen remains as their beautiful daughter, first seen dating Alexandra's teenage son Michael (newcomer Paul Spicer) and eventually drawn into Darryl's lair, too.
With most of the big sets left behind at Drury Lane, designer Bob Crowley instead sets scenes with some effective painted backdrops, rendered as postcards. And though this more pared down approach is arguably the one that should have been taken all along, there are times - especially with the realisation of the interior of Darryl's house - that the current solution looked cheap and I missed the lavishness of before.
What you don't miss, though, and what is brought into even closer proximity to you, is the spectacular flying sequence. Dana P Rowe's score, with lyrics by John Dempsey, remains a constant delight, with its bubbling sense of fun and playfulness that also provides real context and melody. Next to the current Broadway hit, The Producers - which also marks a return for musical comedy - here's a real score, not just a collection of witty pastiches. The next film to stage transition, Peggy Sue Got Married, has a tough act to follow now.
Note: The following review dates from July 2000 and the show's original opening at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane.
The Phantom of the Opera has its plummeting chandelier; Miss Saigon had the levitating helicopter. At the spectacular end of Act One, The Witches of Eastwick take flight - literally. But the musical that contains this scene is also, happily, airborne in other respects, too, rather than stillborn, as far too many recent shows have been. It stands out as something original yet familiar, contemporary yet old-fashioned. And, I almost forgot to add, both fun and entertaining.
In an age when musicals have become increasingly joyless, its refreshing, indeed, to be reminded by this show of what they used to be like. Not for nothing did they used to get called musical comedies; and not for nothing is this show being billed one.
In fact, it's as if Adler and Ross's 1955 Broadway classic Damn Yankees has been dusted down for a contemporary sensibility. The heady brew of baseball glory that the devil (Mr Applegate in that show) uses as bait is re-stirred by the same satanic force (re-labelled Darryl van Horne here) with the promise delivered, first and foremost, of great sex to its three frustrated heroines.
It's a winning formula, and also refreshingly adult. John Dempsey's literate and witty script and lyrics travel a grown-up path that actually takes its characters, as well as the audience, on a journey that goes somewhere. Based on John Updike's 1984 novel, best known for the film version made of it a few years later, it tells of the strange effects that the arrival of that stranger, van Horne, has on a small New England town, and in particular to the trio of longtime female friends.
And Dana P Rowe's musically alert and pleasingly tuneful score also performs a rare task in musical theatre nowadays: to charm and disarm in equal measures. It's instantly accessible yet full of insistent character motifs and dissonant chords that are actually properly motivated. There's none of the standard generic writing that occurs today where songs could be completely interchangeable between characters, scenes and situations.
Eric Schaeffer's smart production is full of visual delight and imagination, courtesy of designer Bob Crowley and a cast and chorus that are attractive in all the right ways. They also give some terrific performances. Though Ian McShane's Darryl van Horne is vocally a little challenged by the score's demands on him, he has the right charismatic appeal: at once insinuatingly attractive yet also oddly repellent. Joanna Riding confirms the promise she has long demonstrated in such National musicals as Carousel and Guys and Dolls to effortlessly steal the show from her rivals, Broadway's Lucie Arnaz (in a nicely understated performance) and Maria Friedman (in an overstated one that seems to take its cue from the show's final number, 'Look at Me'). Rosemary Ashe also does a typically funny and terrifically scene-stealing turn as the town's sour gossip.
But, and this is the true test of a musical that works, the show turns out to be more than the sum of its parts, rather than the usual less. It provides a satisfyingly robust evening of musical storytelling.