This month, The Witches of Eastwick will grace a college campus for the first time ever.
The show, based on the eponymous John Updike novel, is playing at Western Michigan University’s Shaw Theatre on Oct. 6. Jay Berkow, director of musical theatre at WMU, said getting the rights to the show was a real “coup” for the university. It involved two different letter writing campaigns to Cameron Mackintosh, who directed the original musical production in London in 2000.
“I saw the show in London and have always been fascinated by the piece,” Berkow said.
The story focuses on three small-town friends who have all lost the men in their lives, leaving them feeling unfulfilled. But then a stranger, Daryl, arrives, and not only does he begin courting them all, but he also informs them of their witch-hood. The women spend more and more time at his mansion enjoying themselves and learning about their powers, while simultaneously growing wary of Daryl’s true intentions.
Berkow and composer Dana P. Rowe said the story is really about the sense of empowerment the female characters achieve. Rowe said he wants women to feel empowered and to know they always have power within themselves and don’t need someone else to give them permission to feel that sense of strength.
“It’s a forward-thinking feminist piece,” Berkow said. “There’s this titillating nature of playing with evil and sexuality and giving it that fun edge. For me as a director, it’s walking that line between humor and the drama of theater while making sure the characters are believable and the audience buys into it.”
He thinks women, or anyone in the audience who has felt marginalized, will walk out with a sense of empowerment.
“I want the audiences to have a great time and enjoy it,” he said. “It is a sexual show and I want people to get in touch with themselves a little bit.”
He also hopes the musical score will stay with audience members long after they see the show. Rowe and his writing partner, John Dempsey, were given carte blanche by Mackintosh when they began composing for the musical in 1998.
“The real nutshell there for me is making sure it’s compelling and moves us forward always,” Rowe said. “In any really good theatrical production, you’ve got to keep it moving and keep the storytelling very clear. The story comes first for me.”
As with most of his compositions, the music followed the lyrics.
“The words tell us what to think and the music tells us what to feel,” Rowe said. “I usually work with the lyrics first and build the music from that, because that really supports the lyrics and gives people something really juicy to sing. A really good song gives the character a moment of transformation within the song.”
A cast of 26 music and theater students will give voice to Rowe’s songs while telling the story though Berkow’s direction and choreography.
After getting the rights, Berkow has been able to concentrate on adding a few new elements to the show, while also staying true to the book and movie that serve as the foundation. He said the student actors will be bringing their own subtle touches to each role.
“(I get to) sit back and watch these glorious students just blossom and grow,” Rowe said. “Their talents are magnificent. This is a great thing to get to do. As a composer, it’s hard to watch a production where people don’t have the talent.”
The Witches of Eastwick
1903 W. Michigan Ave., Kalamazoo
Oct. 6-15, $23 regular,