There are few opening nights in South East Queensland like an opening night at Phoenix Ensemble’s Tin Shed. The air practically crackles with anticipation and the audience packs the bar before the theatre opens. The Witches of Eastwick was no exception. Greeted by the near capacity audience, the orchestra struck its opening chords and whisked us off to Eastwick, New Hampshire, and the sordid goings on that hung over the city.
For those who haven’t heard the gossip from a neighbour, ‘The Witches of Eastwick’ is based on the John Updike novel, set in the gossipy and boring town of Eastwick, with a story that focuses on the secret desires of three powerful young witches, who conjure up a devilish stranger in the form of Darryl Van Horne. He then leads the witches down a dark path while seeking to achieve his own nefarious means.
Directed by Darcy Morris, the show moves along at a gallop, with very few spots inherent in the script for the audience to pause and gather their thoughts. Morris largely maintained this speed, although the technical design of the production had too many lengthy blackouts, and choices made to have stage crew handle all of the setting of scenes led to some distractions throughout that could have been avoided. Overall though it is clear that Morris has had an absolute ball putting this show together, and the charming playfulness of the evening was credit to his work.
The set design, also by Morris, while incredibly beautiful, was a little too clunky for the small tin shed. It created some stunning visuals, but the giant “rooms” that slid onto the stage and opened up were cumbersome and moved too slowly. The stunning church that adorned the back of the stage (and was not used nearly enough for its size and scope) was gorgeous, and could perhaps have been adapted to garner the effect that Morris was looking for.
There were some technical elements on opening night that went a little askew. Some lighting cues were missed, and some of the choices (two witches spotted with yellow light, one witch spotted with purple for example or the staging being washed in green every time a particular character entered) that felt a little undercooked or forced, in addition to an overall dark and patchy lighting design, these things stopped some scenes from sparkling as much as they could have. Additionally stage management felt very rushed and pulled focus, loudly ripping open curtains to grab props and set pieces.
Credit must go to the designers of the show for some of their more spectacular technical elements, especially the Act 1 closer, where things elevated (go see the show and you’ll understand) considerably. Kudos must also be given to Victoria Sica for her stunning costume designs and creations. The style was perfectly put together, and the number and array of costumes that appeared on stage was practically countless, especially Eastwick’s own witches, and Van Horne, who almost had a different outfit for every scene that they were in.
Musical Direction by Kym Brown was largely solid, with some lovely harmony work from both the lead actors, and the chorus. The music felt under tempo in some areas, which pulled the pace of the show down but this worked for some of the bigger, Broadway style numbers, as well as letting the very wordy lyrics of some songs be heard and understood.There were some balance issues throughout, in particular from the brass who often thoroughly overpowered any soloist, even with a mic on. Additionally, there were definitely too many moments when Brown could be heard counting out loud on lead ins and tempo changes throughout. Despite this, however, there was wonderfully rich and warm sound when the singers, and the orchestra both found their place and the balance was achieved.
Choreography by Taylor Davidson was crisp, clean, and overall well put together. It hit the sweet spot between being creative and clever and not overly complicated, so the small ensemble could really nail it. The wonderfully fun choreography brought numbers like ‘Dirty Laundry” to life. Davidson should be credited for working not just within the confines of the small stage in the Tin Shed, but also the restrictions that the cumbersome set put upon her. She worked wonders, and never once left the audience feeling as though the stage was cramped or overcrowded during the dance numbers. She provided plenty of space for the ensemble to really shine through.
As the chaotic and carnal Darryl Van Horne, Joshua Moore was a side splitting delight. While his performance erred on the side of physical slapstick esque comedy, than the brooding and scintillating Van Horne that many would have been expecting to see, Moore’s commitment to doing things on stage that most people would be uncomfortable doing in the privacy of their own bathrooms is exceptional. His vocal prowess is second only to the sheer cheeky charm he oozes every time he is on stage. His work with the witches was something to behold, and Moore went a long way to try to keep up with the show stealing trio.
Samara Marinelli’s turn as Alexandra Spofford was formidable and fierce. With an incredible serving of vocal power she soared through the shows soundtrack with ease, smashing numbers like “Another Night At Darryl’s” like they were easy warm ups. Marinelli’s big, brash energy was like a breath of fresh air throughout the night, never overwhelming the other witches but always finding a way to shine both individually and as a part of the trio.
As the repressed Jane Smart, Lara Boyle shone. From Jane’s buttoned-down beginnings to her released and whole final moments, Boyle tracked a masterfully put together path that was as spellbinding as it was captivating. Her voice, while sweeter than Marinelli’s, packs a tonne of punch and she has plenty of opportunities to let loose. A treat of a performance, it is rare in community theatre to see a role so perfectly executed, but Boyle brought a professionalism to the stage that radiated up and out of the tiny theatre.
Sukie Rougemont, who suffers from a brutal lack of self confidence, is wonderfully brought to life by Danika Saal. Watching Sukie blossom and find her inner power was heartwarming and brought another slice of humanity to the trio. There is an innate watchability about all of the witches, and Saal is no exception to this, taking her part (arguably with some of the more difficult songs in the score) and hitting them faultlessly.
It is an unusual place to be, to consider that Felicia Gabriel (Susan Stenlake), for all of her unlikeability is actually the hero of the show. A woman whose husband (played delightfully by Simon Lyell) is openly cheating on her, who is environmentally conscious, who invests in local business, and who wants a morally upright place to live in. Stenlake took all of this on board and added just the right amount of wicked witch to make her commensurately hated by all of the audience present. Between her, and Lyell’s beaten down Clyde Gabriel (who rendered a remarkably sweet version of the character) a wonderful, and much needed change of pace was added every time the couple were on stage.
No musical is complete without a charming romance to underpin it, and the Romeo and Juliet styled “forbidden-romance” of Jennifer Gabriel and Michael Spofford had charm and heart to spare. As Jennifer, Hannah Johnstone was darling and sweet, and with a beautiful voice and a lovely earnest acting style she was a lovely match for Harley Coghlan’s Michael. While Coghlan struggled a little with his pitch, particularly in the upper register, Johnstone grounded his vocals, and the wonderful honesty of his portrayal was a treat for audiences.
While every member of the ensemble was clearly working their collective backsides off and were thoroughly deserving of the applause audiences gave them, honourable mentions must be given to; Kristy-Lee Castle as the Little Girl who creeps about Eastwick with her doll and sings eerie limericks. Her voice is sublime and she exudes the kind of energy that many, far more seasoned performers, lack. From the ensemble Scott Johnson and Lauren Ryan both shone and gave richly rewarding moments of story to anyone watching their characters develop away from the additional story.
Last, but not least, it would be entirely remiss not to mention Jason Ianna’s work as Fidel, the silent but exquisitely vocal bodyservant of Darryl Van Horne. Ianna took a minor character and made him a sneering, lurid, thoroughly naughty, showstopper. Of particular note is the mexican standoff which took place in the shower, and while the opening night audience might have been choked by the amount of talcum powder he appeared in at the end, his final one-fingered salute to the people of Eastwick caused them to erupt in laughter.
For a rollicking, roaring good time, don’t discount this little performed musical or this out of the way company in its little shed. They do big, ballsy, staggeringly high quality theatre, and they dive into risky productions and blockbusters with equal relish. Do yourselves a favour and don’t miss a trip to Eastwick. Just like Darryl Van Horne, you’ll find yourself loving a little town.
‘The Witches of Eastwick’ plays until Saturday 17 August, 2019. For ticketing and additional information visit https://www.phoenixensemble.com.au.
With a healthy interest in the creative arts from a young age, Shane has studied drama at ACU, where he also majored in Philosophy and Literature. He then went on to study Acting at USQ, and screenwriting at the New York Film Academy on the Gold Coast. His theatrical experience has seen him take on many roles both on and off stage, he has sat on the boards of several community theatre companies.