Tunes may be familiar, but the witches are flying high tonight

Witches of Eastwick | Theatre Royal, London
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The Independent Culture

The little girl in the gingham dress looks familiar. When last we saw her, wasn't she somewhere over the rainbow? Or was it Kansas? At any rate, it was a long, long time ago when the world was young, audiences less cynical and Dorothy - that was her name - had fewer friends. In those days, you could wish upon a star, dream a little dream and Mr Wonderful invariably appeared. But that was then and this is now. "Musical comedy" grew up. Didn't it?

The little girl in the gingham dress looks familiar. When last we saw her, wasn't she somewhere over the rainbow? Or was it Kansas? At any rate, it was a long, long time ago when the world was young, audiences less cynical and Dorothy - that was her name - had fewer friends. In those days, you could wish upon a star, dream a little dream and Mr Wonderful invariably appeared. But that was then and this is now. "Musical comedy" grew up. Didn't it?

The good thing about The Witches of Eastwick is that you know exactly where you are. The bad thing about it is that you know exactly where you are. John Dempsey (book and lyrics) and Dana P Rowe (music) have written a good, old-fashioned musical comedy (for once the word is not redundant) with a touch of subversion into the mix - a family show with an X-rated subtext. John Dempsey's book is quick-witted, peppered with smart one-liners - "Why are all the good ones gay?" "He wasn't that good" - and played by a cast who know how to land them. Together, he and his partner bed us down in the Broadway tradition with a series of well-integrated but - and here's the rub - all too predictable songs. "I dream of a life where the songs come on cue," sings the wonderfully caustic Jane. And they do. There's irony at work here. But is the love duet "Something" a parody of a bad love song or just a bad love song?

Rowe's music shines where Alexandra, Sukie and Jane dare to dream. Their three big numbers certainly achieve uplift. But still you wish the tunes took us places we'd never been before. Great song melodies are born of the surprise that lends enchantment. Rowe rarely surprises. And he can be downright prosaic. "Dirty Laundry" is a paltry point number pumped up into a show-stopper thanks to the wizardry of William David Brohn's orchestrations. Of course, that's the number folk will be humming as they leave the theatre.

Even so, the enjoyment factor is high, the production values sky-high. Notwithstanding that this is a small show writ very large, it's good to see Cameron Mackintosh pushing the boat out on fresh talent. Designer Bob Crowley gives us more neon than you could shake a forked stick at, a diner transformed into a giant keyboard, an exploding church and a wicked crib on the Sunset Boulevard mansion. Ian McShane's devil-may-care (but he doesn't) Darryl Van Horne is as close to sleaze as family entertainment gets - Jack Nicholson meets Tom Jones. Rosemary Ashe, literally terrific as Felicia Gabriel, spews a whole lot more than just cherry stones, pearl necklaces and silver dollars to steal every scene she appears in. And, of course, in this show you get three female stars for the price of one: tall, elegant Lucie Arnaz is Alexandra Spofford, whose attitude to boob enhancement is "if you don't have 'em, sculpt 'em"; Maria Friedman is the hack Sukie Rougemont whose idea of oral is a patter song; and Joanna Riding is a revelation as cool, cutting cellist Jane Smart, who modulates her way to orgasm.

Towards the end of the first act, I looked up to find Friedman hovering a few feet above my seat in row H of the stalls. "Focus," she urged, "Come fly with me." I couldn't quite manage it. The best that can be said of this likeable and beautifully mounted show is that it keeps alive a dying tradition. If only it were also advancing its cause.

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