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SOUND OFF: Witchy Women & Damned Divas Ignite AMERICAN HORROR STORY: COVEN - LuPone, Ebersole, Rabe, Lange, Paulson, Etc.

Hell nearly froze over - or, perhaps we should we say, burned brighter than ever before - as a result of the sheer dumbfounding and awe-inspiring array of major theatre stars populating FX's hit horror anthology series AMERICAN HORROR STORY: COVEN last night. Honestly, given the spate of legendary leading ladies lighting up the night, AMERICAN HORROR STORY: Tony Awards is actually more accurate!

Sisters Of The Moon

Christine Ebersole. Patti LuPone. Kathy Bates. Jessica Lange. Lily Rabe. Sarah Paulson. Mare Winningham. Angela Bassett. Need I go on? The many dynamic divas on display in last night's third entry in the third season of the Ryan Murphy/Brad Falchuk fantastical horror fever dream known as American Horror Story was enough to make for the biggest Halloween treat imaginable to Broadway babies yearning for a scary yarn and desiring a demonic demonstration this autumn - indeed, this phantasmagoria puts even THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA to shame in the gore and chilling thrills department! Or, SWEENEY TODD, even, for that matter. And, as for star wattage alone, last night's devilishly bedecked buffet of big Broadway talent was satisfying, scary and surprising enough to warrant a repeat for future Halloweens, as well - actually, perhaps this time next week might even be an apt occasion to relive it all again given the all-too-delectable timing of it all. It was an incomparable all-you-can-eat smorgasbord of diva divinity done devilish.

No hour of television in 2013 besides perhaps the 2013 Tony Awards itself was as appreciably populous and generously overflowing with the exceptional feast of fabulousness as only theatre and its finest actors can provide as it was laid out by Murphy and company on last night's James Wong-scripted, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon-directed hour of horror. None. Bonus? It was actually 75 minutes! Beyond the running time, though, it was an embarrassment of riches, really, all told - to say the very least! I mean, where to even begin? First and foremost, though: be warned that from here on in there be spoilers, ye heathens!

Starting off with a spectacular period-set spotlight on recognizable two-time Tony Award-winning stage and screen notable Christine Ebersole as the last Supreme - that is, high queen - of the American coven of witches circa 1971, "The Replacements" was a multi-award-submission-worthy example of the peerless showcase afforded to actresses of all ages, styles, backgrounds and appearances in the weird, provocative and surprising world conjured up by Glee and NIP/TUCK masterminds Murphy and Falchuk in this idiosyncratic series. Shot with unmatched visual panache and daringness, presented with painterly polish and painstaking attention to detail, each episode thus far this season has evoked a tangible, terrifying mood, style and tone, while conveying the complex motivations of a coterie of witches that comprise the central coven of the title while doing so.

Case in point, last night, Ebersole made her very first appearance as the last witch to rule the wicked roost prior to the currently-reigning Supreme, Fiona Goode (Jessica Lange), and created a unique mise en scene all her own. Alas, while we may have been denied an Ebersole/Lange match-up, it appears more than merely clear from the proceedings that were enacted by the talented actress portraying Lange's younger self that a further exposition of the dueling Supremes may very well come to fruition in the future. Or, maybe not. One thing is clear: Ebersole expertly evoked the era in her introductory scene, elegantly dragging from a hand-rolled cigarette seemingly sourced from an even earlier era just as she prepared for an unexpected throat-slicing. That's one thing you can be absolutely guaranteed you won't see in 42nd STREET - or on 42nd St., either (at least not anymore)!

Along with returning reigning series star Jessica Lange - who, by the way, is knocking her ultra-glam new role into the stratosphere this season, as assumed she would (that voiceover bar monologue!); cocaine-fueled, scotch-soaked and cigarette-wielding all the wicked while - comes recognizable Academy Award winner and onetime stage star Kathy Bates in her historically-based character of racist torturer and enslaver Madame LaLaurie, transplanted to modern-day New Orleans and now living along with the majority of the rest of the main women at the witch academy. Yet, she now is the maid of the mansion, not the madam - and, what a difference two hundred years and a change of position in the hierarchy makes in one's attitude! Expectedly, Bates and the young coven (Emma Roberts, Taissa Farmiga and Jamie Brewer among them) are a delightful match, with Gabourey Sidibe dishing out a healthy helping of sass and attitude to counter Bates at her most excellently epic and writ large - which is definitely no small feat! So far on AMERICAN HORROR STORY: COVEN, if anyone in the stupefyingly talented cast should be clearing a space on her mantle for some new statues next year it is unquestionably Miss Bates - just the first five minutes of the series this year confirmed that, and, now, these new developments involving her increasingly iconic characterization add even more fuel to the fire, further illuminating her exceptional brilliance as a dramatic and comedic actress.

Arriving at the unforgettable apotheosis of her acting last season with her indelible turn in AMERICAN HORROR STORY: ASYLUM, Broadway vet and American Horror Story all-star Sarah Paulson shone in yet another masterful dramatic moment on the series with her turn as the barren, forlorn Cordelia Foxx in last night's episode, painfully presenting a tearful moment of hard truth being processed byway of the revelation that her character will never conceive a child - at least not without the help of some serious magic. After all, as we glimpsed last episode, there is some wizardry and witchcraft in the ether as far as her potential offspring are concerned - unless all the snakes and sand and ritual was just for laughs and kinks! Yet, that could be precisely the case. Hopefully, Paulson's character will eventually find a happy ending somehow like the much put-upon Lana Winters eventually did last year in the final reel. At least we can hope - and pray.

Also returning for another go-round this season on AMERICAN HORROR STORY: COVEN is frequent stage stalwart and rising screen personality Lily Rabe in yet another unique and arresting turn tailor-made to her versatile abilities - this time as a witchy woman evoking none other than legendary rock goddess (and rumored white witch herself) Stevie Nicks. Undoubtedly, in just three episodes so far this season, Rabe has made a major mark in a wild and woodsy personage as a reincarnated (or is she?) dark sister recently burned at the stake, Salem-style, setting into motion the central season plot-point of the Supreme (Lange)'s return to New Orleans in the first place. The sweet, ripe cherry on top of all of this, of course, is that we have also been treated to Rabe showing off some heretofore unseen and unheard singing skills given her character's deep affection for the Fleetwood Mac siren - with Rabe lending dulcet tones to the moody Stevie Nicks pop standard "Sara" this week and the Mac masterpiece "Rhiannon" before that. And, who knows what's next! Additionally, according to Murphy, Stevie Nicks has provided the series with her entire back catalogue for use, so the sonorous songs on the soundtrack as they pertain to Rabe's cape-twirling hermit are obviously not coming to an end anytime soon - and thankfully so. And the operatics don't stop there, either!

While Jessica Lange and Kathy Bates have shared some devilishly appealing and quote-worthy scenes so far - as have Lange and continually astounding Angela Bassett as a seriously scary voodoo priestess masquerading as a hair salon entrepreneur (shades of MARIE CHRISTINE's real-life inspiration, Marie Leveau), continuing her excellence last night opposite Paulson (and, egads, is that hellish cackle the stuff of nightmares) - the match-up theatre fans with a predilection for horror have been anticipating most of all is undoubtedly the pairing shared by two-time Tony Award-winning Broadway legend Patti LuPone and American Horror Story diva supreme Lange. Well, boy - or, should we say, girl - did their first scene together deliver! Religious mockery, outrageous comedy, drunken dramatics, boisterous bitchery, all-too-tangible fear and a dollop of camp made the moment instantly, unexplainably awesome in oh-so-many ways. Plus, LuPone and Emma Roberts squared off in what is sure to be the first of many altercations to come, as well - or, given the final twist, maybe not. Most of all, though, who but Ryan Murphy would cast Patti LuPone as an ultra-conservative Christian not too far removed from Tea Party freaks like Michelle Bachmann? Simply genius. Furthermore, Miss LuPone is milking it for all it is worth - and, we've still got ten more episodes to go!

As if all of this diva-dom were not enough, recent PICNIC on Broadway headliner Mare Winningham made her debut (and send-off?) on the series, as well, vividly rendering a performance not soon to be forgotten with her tragic turn as an incestuous white trash mother with the desperate final wish of her dead son (Evan Peters) returning actually granted, only now he is a Frankenstein version of himself. The horrors did not stop there, yet Winningham made us somehow care for the horrible figure despite what she did, which shows the strength of her superlative portrayal of a tricky and unappetizing character. Similarly, as a Riff Raff/ROCKY HORROR SHOW-esque butler, Denis O'Hare also continues to excel in yet another entry in his ever-increasing resume of outlandish and extreme character parts with his almost unrecognizable turn on this year's show - call him an honorary diva for purposes of this spotlight on the theatre vets moonlighting on AMERICAN HORROR STORY, as the case may be. Oh, and Frances Conroy (who only appeared in the preview for next week, unfortunately)? An acting dream - in whatever her guise. Always.

Without a doubt, AMERICAN HORROR STORY: COVEN is the one-stop shop for theatre fans desiring a diva turn by Broadway's best to go along with their tricks and treats this Halloween season - with last night's episode acting as a super-special once-in-a-blue-moon triple-decker treat worth savoring, again and again. And, now that Ryan Murphy has announced Glee is coming to an end in 2015, perhaps an upcoming musical season of the series - AMERICAN HORROR STORY: BROADWAY? - isn't too outlandish a premise to ponder for the creators, cast and crew to take on some year soon.

Or, for once, maybe that would finally be going too far... in that case, well, I'll be damned.

Photo Credits: FX

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From This Author Pat Cerasaro

Pat Cerasaro contributes exclusive scholarly columns including InDepth InterViews, Sound Off, Theatrical Throwback Thursdays, Flash Friday and Flash Special as well as additional special features, (read more...)