Manifesting himself to a town of astonished New Englanders, Clarke Peters (good casting for the Prince of Darkness) swaggers and slinks and sweet-talks in a fast-paced number like a combination of Robert Preston and Cab Calloway. But Peters's energy can't conceal the gluey, half-baked nature of the American pie he's asked to serve us.
You can see John Dempsey's lyrics coming a mile away, but sadly there's no place to hide. Young lovers bawl of wanting to "leave this town behind us,/Break the ties that bind us". Darryl, as the devil calls himself, tells his trainee witches: "Concentration – that's the byword./Send your spirits soaring skyward.'' Sorry, but with this stuff, feller, my poor heart won't leave the cellar.
Traditional advice on writing musicals says that the songs should advance action and/or reveal character. The songs by Dempsey and Dana P Rowe, though, tell us several times what we've heard an hour before, or can see for ourselves – that Darryl is sexy, or that the townspeople disapprove of his carrying on with the witches. "These women,'' a character points out helpfully in the opening number, "they could be trouble! Just you wait and see!''
This heavy-handedness shows that this latest product from the Cameron Mackintosh Musical Manufactory knows its target audience – women who iron while they watch TV, phone-chat with friends, and shout at the kids. Rowe's tunes, which dribble along ineffectually until they arrive at a sudden, blasting triumphal note (wake up, you in the back row) match Dempsey's soothing paeans to know-nothing narcissism ("Everything I needed was there inside of me").
While getting the chorus, stomping out the trite, butch choreography, to give till it hurts us, Eric Schaeffer hasn't given the show any coherence of time, place or tone. Are we in 2001, or the Fifties? New England or generic America? Is this satire, or a tribute to sisterhood (in other words, making a virtue of necessity)? After his promising entrance, Peters turns out to be about as sexy and subversive as Burt Reynolds trying to embarrass a female guest on a chat show. And Rebecca Thornhill, as the fluffy witch, speaks in a tedious dizzy-cutie-pie voice. But Josefina Gabrielle, a real dish, has great comic timing, and Joanna Riding sneaks the show away from them all as the tough-talking musician.
Comparison with Updike's dazzling novel would be depressing, but one point glares enough for notice. In the book, the women are witches from the start; here, their magic is a gift from the devil after he seduces them. It's not at all surprising to find such condescension in partnership with this musical's busy sycophancy.
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