BWW Review: WITCH at Creative Cauldron Casts an Enchanting Spell
Witches are not sexy. They are a representation of centuries of oppression women did (and still do) experience for doing things they shouldn't. Creative Cauldron's new production of Witch, part of their Bold New Works for Intimate Stages initiative, simultaneously educates audiences of the injustices "witches" throughout history face while paralleling the tales with modern struggles for equality. The evening is largely a success, revealing the ways this once deadly moniker can be a beacon of girl power for the 21st century. With America at a crossroads for gender equality, works like this are essential in sparking conversations necessary for our society's advancement.
The musical employs a simple frame story to propel the evening's action. Seven women gather at the first Women's March in 2017. Three generations are present: Marie, Fiona, and Mary are accompanied by their mothers Destiny, Molly, and Maggie. To round out the group, Maggie's mother, Becky, tags along with the group and serves as the de facto matriarch. These seven women have decided to participate in the march with performance art at various parts of D.C. telling the tales of women labeled as witches and ruined by the oppressive patriarchy. All the while, the group struggles to negotiate how to best advocate for their worth. When generations of struggles have yielded few results, how does one maintain the drive to keep fighting? Through the stories of witches from the past, the group finds their hope for female empowerment and strength.
While the frame tale isn't particularly compelling, it doesn't really need to be. The narratives of past witches are where Witch hits its stride. Each number is simultaneously educational and toe-tapping that it's a shame most feel far too short. During Destiny's anthem "Sweep Them Out," the septet uses witch's brooms to call for the "sweeping out" of ineffective lawmakers who don't do enough to aid women. This song is so close to being a showstopper but stops about a minute and one dance break too short to rise to those heights.
In fact, the biggest critique of the evening is that it goes by too quickly. Witch has a lot of ground to cover and while they do admirably in addressing the complex and nuanced nature of female oppression the show feels about 10 to 15 minutes too short. Such an addition would keep the night as a manageable one act while allowing for deeper character development, more emotional moments to resonate longer, and musical numbers to avoid feeling truncated. I wouldn't even call this a critique but instead an expression of how much promise this show and its concepts demonstrate.
Creative Cauldron might be a small theater company with limited space, but the cast seems to be gliding around a huge stage thanks to serviceable technical design. Margie Jervis (Creative Cauldron's Resident Designer and Visual Arts Educator) provides an ample playground for her actors and maximize their levels and angles in the intimate 3/4 thrust stage. Alison Johnson's (Monsters of the Villa Diodati) costume design is both whimsical and realistic like if the outfits from American Horror Story: Coven were sold at a cute boutique shop. Lynn Joslin (Kaleidoscope) overcomes many of the challenges of lighting a thrust space and keeps a mystical air through the evening without leaving any performer shrouded in darkness.
The Music Supervision and Orchestrations, done expertly by Warren Freeman (The Turn of the Screw), is great given the constraints of a four-piece orchestra. All of the numbers sound great both vocally and instrumentally but I couldn't help wonder what they would sound like with a fuller set of instruments backing the singers. As written, Matt Conner's (Nevermore) score seems as though it is begging for a large orchestra. I only hope this show will find new life after this first run to become even bigger and better than its current brilliance.
Mr. Conner and Stephen Gregory Smith (The Legend of Sleepy Hollow) manage to avoid many taboos of directing. What is left is a tight 70 minutes where each performer is given purposeful and deliberate moves. When a character doesn't need to be doing anything, they don't! It's a novel concept built on common sense that some directors aren't able to grasp. With a cast this small, it would be easy to fall into a trap of keeping the seven women moving around the stage constantly. Thankfully Mr. Conner and Mr. Smith keep a motivated necessity with every move.
Although the young ladies of the cast (Samaria Dellorso, Sophia Manicone, and Arianna Vargas) do strong work, the four adults are the real stars of the evening. Catherine Purcell (Monsters of the Villa Diodati) paints a sentimental and vulnerable portrait as Molly. Her number, "The Tale of Moll Dyer," is one of the strongest of the evening thanks to the soft touch she gives to the stirring number. As Destiny, Iyona Blake (Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill) is a force to be reckoned with, threatening to bring the house down with "Gambaga" and the previously mentioned "Sweep Them Out." There's a harshness to Susan Derry's (Broadway's Wonderful Town) Maggie that would be easy to overplay, making the character unlikeable. By dropping her guard at the most strategic times, Ms. Derry crafts a more complex character than the book calls for. Florence Lacey (Broadway's Follies) might just be MVP of the evening. She does every action so deliberatively that she she opens her mouth you can't help but be enraptured. Her "Tale of the Crone" is the emotional heart of the evening and reveals the soft interior for this strong-hearted woman.
New works, particularly new musicals, are so difficult to make. There are so many risks associated with putting something on stage when you don't know a ticket will sell. Thankfully Creative Cauldron has cast caution to the wind to give audiences the gift of Witch. This was my first visit to Creative Cauldron. If this musical is an indication of the work they regularly produce, this will surely not be my last.
Witch is playing at Creative Cauldron (410 S Maple Avenue, Falls Church, VA 22046) through May 6, 2018. For tickets, call (703) 436-9948 or click here.
Sam Abney is a Washington, D.C. based arts professional. A native of Arizona, he has happily made D.C. his new home. Sam is a graduate from George Mason University with a degree in Communication and currently works for Arena Stage as a member of their Development team. He is a life-long lover of theater and is excited about sharing his passion with as many people as possible.
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