Revised since its world premiere in London in 2000, the musical based on the film and novel has book and lyrics by John Dempsey and music by Dana P. Rowe.
"Edgier" and "sexier" than it was in London, with recent tweaks to the material, Witches is directed by Signature artistic director Eric Schaffer (the originating director), and he's hired a trio of big-voiced Broadway ladies — Jacquelyn Piro Donovan, Christiane Noll and Tony Award nominee Emily Skinner — to play the New England women who conjure the Devil, in the form of Tony Award-nominated baritone Marc Kudisch.
In addition to Donovan, Noll and Skinner the production (through July 15) also includes Jeremy Benton, Brianne Cobuzzi, Matt Conner, David Covington, Erin Driscoll, Ilona Dulaski, Sherri L. Edelen, James Gardiner, Karlah Hamilton, Amy McWilliams, Brittany O'Grady, Diego Prieto, Tammy Roberts, Thomas Adrian Simpson, Scott J. Strasbaugh and Harry A. Winter.
The staging offers "an edgier, sexier twist tailored for American audiences in the intimate playing space of Signature's MAX Theater," according to the D.C.-area Helen Hayes Award-winning Equity troupe.
Kudisch is the devilish Darryl Van Horne (played by Jack Nicholson in the film), Skinner (Side Show, Dinner at Eight) plays the would-be sculptress Alexandra, Christiane Noll (Little By Little, Dinner at Eight) is the uptight cellist Jane, and Jacquelyn Piro Donovan (The Ark, Les Miz) is the tongue-tied newspaper reporter Sukie.
The creative team includes music director Jon Kalbfleisch, choreographer Karma Camp, set designer Walt Spangler, costume designer Alejo Vietti, lighting designer Chris Lee, sound designer Matt Rowe, orchestrator Bruce Coughlin and production stage manager Kerry Epstein.
The production is by arrangement with Cameron Mackintosh Ltd.
The production's original opening date was announced as June 11, but that was later changed to June 15. Signature moved the opening because (in the word of director Eric Schaeffer) because Witches "is a very technically demanding show — basically a new musical with many changes and new orchestrations."
Of the Signature version, lyricist-librettist John Dempsey told Playbill.com, "The challenge with re-doing a show that you've lived with for years and years is trying to see it with fresh eyes. We were determined to go back to the tone of the original draft; darker, more human, more sensual, a touch sadder really. The great and difficult task before us here was to retain the storytelling improvements we made in the West End while finding our new (or old, if you prefer) voice. In London, it became a very broad comedy. The ghost of Benny Hill was metaphorically hovering behind John Updike, making funny faces and stealing focus.
"Doing it at Signature afforded us the chance to make it more American. It truly is an American story, isn't it? More specifically, it's a New England story. While European, Asian and Australian audiences have always been able to to appreciate the story intellectually, it's never really meant anything to them. It never connected with them on the gut level, I don't think. I'm anxious and excited to see how an American audience takes to the show. The idea of Pure Evil showing up at our door to seduce us is encoded into our DNA in this country."
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During rehearsals, lyricist-librettist John Dempsey answered Playbill.com's questions about the show's history and this latest incarnation.
After the London opening, was the show "frozen" in the West End, or were changes made?
"Changes were made throughout the run actually," Dempsey said. "Small things mostly. But about ten months into the run, we moved to the Prince of Wales Theatre. We swapped out one song, moved another from Act Two into Act One and made numerous changes in dialogue scenes. It wasn't a wholesale rewrite, but it was an important step in the evolution of the show."
Did it tour in the U.K., and were there changes after London?
Dempsey explained, "The show did not tour the U.K., but it did get subsequent productions in Australia, Russia and Japan. Another spate of changes were put in for Australia, including a major expansion in Darryl Van Horne's first number, 'I Love a Little Town.' It helped enormously, though not enough in my opinion… [see below]."
Are there new songs or scenes for the U.S. premiere?
"The scenes in which Darryl seduces the three women have been re-ordered and placed back to back to back, as it were," Dempsey said. "A great deal of dialogue has been reworked. And two new songs have been written for this production. The aforementioned 'I Love A Little Town' has been replaced with a new song called 'Darryl Van Horne.' I'm particularly thrilled with this addition. Darryl's entrance now represents a ripping of the musical fabric. His first number is now electric and sexual and threatening. By changing out this one song, it completely alters everything that follows."
What attracted Dempsey and composer Dana Rowe to the material in the first place?
Dempsey said, "Dana and I have always been perversely attracted to stories about burgeoning immorality. Boy, that sounds just horrible, doesn't it? But there's something truly wonderful about discovery. Discovery of the good you can do and the bad you can do. Here we have both in abundance. In general, this story contains all my favorites: small town setting, gossipy townspeople, religion, magic, sex. New England is my favorite place in all America. It's ripe with tension and repression and music. Conflict is built into the geography itself. The story also offered a tremendous leading man, a character so oversized, he just had to 'sing.' We were also greatly attracted to the idea of writing for three women; the idea of writing trios that were not Andrews Sisters songs seemed a great and satisfying challenge. Indeed, looking back at the score now, it's in the women's songs that I think we achieved our best work. I hope others agree."
Does the tale have universal things to say?
"I believe it does," Dempsey said. "It's chockfull of observations regarding male/female relationships, sexual symbiosis, female empowerment. John Updike has this uncanny ability to conjure epic themes in tiny details. There is nothing more universal than the specific."
Will this version be a template for a licensable script for a stock and amateur life?
"Every production of every show has to be seen as an end unto itself," he said. "Right now, we're all concentrating on doing the very best production we possibly can for Signature Theatre and its audience. Every bite at the apple brings new juice. Every actor teaches us something new. What will happen next with the show is anyone's guess. I'm just concentrating on the here and now. This show has had a wild journey thus far. I have no reason to believe that it'll be over anytime soon. It's a roller coaster, this life."