The Witches of Eastwick: Wickedly Slick

From novel, to film, to theatre, The Witches of Eastwick has had many incarnations, the latest being UMMTA’s most recent production. Three single women, outcasts from their town of Truman Show-like domestic perfection, pray for the ‘perfect’ man to save them from their struggles. When he arrives, innocent fun turns into manipulation and harm of a more serious kind, and the three ‘witches’ must unite to defeat this devilish presence, and ultimately save their town.

UMMTA’s production owes much of its success to an extremely talented and enthusiastic ensemble cast. Their slick performances, choreography and vocals render the show polished, professional and easy to watch. Many supporting cast members are of particular note: Rebecca Cecil, Cindy Jiang and Ariella Gordon (as Gina, Brenda and Greta respectively) bring life to the stage despite their more minor roles, while the recurring presence of Max Jelbart and Lucy Kelly (as Fidel and the Little Girl) is consistently amusing. Olivia Sweeney gives a highly entertaining and accomplished performance as Felicia, and Daniel Czech is a suitably pathetic stereotype of a downbeat husband as Clyde. Harry Gore’s portrayal of Darryl is sleazy and slimy, although one couldn’t help but feel that the commanding presence and authority implied in the script was somewhat lacking on stage. Finally, Isabella Wiemers, Eloise Bagnara and Asher Harrington shine as the witches themselves. Wiemers’ Alexandra is performed with confidence and flair, with some stellar solos. Bagnara carefully balances cynicism and vulnerability in her portrayal of Jane, and Harrington absolutely embodies the character of Sukie, combining meekness with compassion (and some incredible vocals). As a trio, the three are convincing and complementary in their performances, and harmonise beautifully.

Milla Gentil and Harriet Wing’s set design is elaborate, with various elements eliminating the occurrence of long and tedious set changes. The layered backdrops were used to great effect, although once or twice were overly abstract and hindered the establishment of scene. Prop design is also accomplished, with the production involving several successful magic tricks. Of particular note is a trick involving a self-playing cello that I am yet to figure out. The costume design, (by Monique Langford and Tori Adams) is similarly detailed, clearly establishing the ‘perfect’ town of Eastwick and distinguishing the ‘witches’ from their acquaintances from the outset. Despite a great number of costume changes throughout the show, the costumes successfully function to distinguish both individual characters and the social groups to which they belong.

However, I must admit that something feels off throughout The Witches of Eastwick, which feels startlingly dated despite only being adapted to theatre in 2000. Certain lines and events must be, in the light of the past year or so, interpreted with a heaviness that UMMTA’s bubbly production cannot bypass. Lines suggesting that to get women to listen, you need to “hit ‘em hard”, and the deaths of two characters in what is essentially an episode of domestic violence, are difficult to find funny in the present climate. The thinly veiled euphemisms in ‘Dance with the Devil’ – which claims that although they might suggest otherwise, all women like to ‘dance with the devil’, who fortunately enough resides in all men – is similarly discomforting. Even the ‘feminism’ that The Witches of Eastwick apparently propounds is unconvincing. The play’s female protagonists suggest a female identity that revolves, from girlhood, around marriage. They seek validation through men as either protector or protected, and ultimately only find strength through and under the control of a manipulative man. The defeat of Darryl’s stereotypical and one-dimensional misogyny is low-hanging fruit, and the witches’ realisation of their independence feels like feminism from half a century ago. Undoubtedly these are criticisms of the play itself, rather than UMMTA’s production; however, left unaddressed, they leave the production feeling unaware and even tone-deaf. Perhaps this could even be considered a bit of a missed opportunity – with a critical lens and the modification of the play’s slick tone, there is most likely room for a really interesting revisionary look at The Witches of Eastwick.

The Witches of Eastwick is an entertaining musical, and director Tabitha Lee is to be commended on pulling together many individual elements to create a smooth and polished production. However, I was left wondering why UMMTA chose to produce the play, and having chosen to do so, why they played it so straight, rather than with the critical lens 2018 seems to demand of it. Nonetheless, with an outstanding cast and seamless execution, UMMTA’s production proved both enjoyable and accomplished. Like the town of Eastwick, this was ultimately a slick and sophisticated production in which, deep down, something felt amiss.

Matilda Millar-Carton

UMMTA’s production of The Witches of Eastwick ran from the 28th of September – 6th of October in the Union House Theatre.

 

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