Review – Damned Yankees – Imperial Productions at the Jack Studio Theater, Brockley

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I’m a big fan of golden and silver age Broadway musicals, and a chance to finally see the Gwen Verdon extravaganza Damned Yankees performed live was more than enough to entice me to a pub theater in the far southern reaches of London town. With songs like, “Whatever Lola Wants, Lola Gets,” “Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, Mo,” and “A Little Brains, A Little Talent,” I was promised an evening of musical happy times if nothing else. I mean, you can’t really expect Bob Fosse choreography and Gwen Verdon va va voom ever again, but set your expectations correctly and you should have a good evening ahead. Furthermore, it was a UK premiere (or so I was told – hard to believe!) and after seven odd years here, the idea of seeing a musical about baseball made me feel kind of nostalgic.

As it turns out, the Brockley Jack’s pub theater did a solid job, despite only having a three piece band and a male cast that made me think of “Three Brides for Three Brothers” (baseball teams need to have 9 men; this one only had four – no wonder the Washington Senators kept losing to the New York Yankees!). But we had a nicely turned out set – the whole thing was painted to look like a baseball field – and respectable costuming – period feel dresses for the women and very good approximations of baseball uniforms – so I was content to see how the performances themselves held up.

The show got off to a bit of a stumbling start, as our hero, Joe Hardy (Liam Christopher Lloyd), is supposed to be a late middle aged man and instead was a very square jawed young man with a lot of va va voom of his own. He started singing “Goodbye Old Girl” with a bit of a rusty sounding voice, and I was worried: had they hired someone who couldn’t sing? But then the devil (Paul Tate) “transforms” him into Shoeless Joe (he changes out of his sweater), and Joe’s voice suddenly cleared up. Ah – this was him attempting to be an older man! Pity they couldn’t have done a bit more with facial prosthetics or something to make Lloyd clearly older in the first scene; it was confusing and I felt I only followed along because I already knew the script.

Tate was effortlessly scheming and evil in his role as Joe’s “manager,” but the surprising standout from the cast for me was, not Lola (Charlotte Donald), but Rachel Lea Gray as Gloria, the meddling reporter who wants to figure out what Joe’s secret is. While she wasn’t appropriately costumed for a working woman (bare midriff? I think not), she had a voice that really filled the space, charisma galore, and great dance moves. Donald, by comparison, was too light in her role and didn’t actually have a strong of a voice as she needed to sell her character’s songs. On the other hand the choreographer had to take some blame for the floppy execution of “Whatever Lola Wants,” truly one of the standout songs of the show; but since so many of the other group dance numbers were fun, it’s hard to say Becky East was much to blame. She certainly handled the two bizarre salsa/cha-cha numbers well enough.

Overall, I’m glad I made it out to this theater to see this lively show; I even cheered along with the baseball warmup chants, but I was sorry there wasn’t popcorn and fresh roasted peanuts for sale in the lobby (an opportunity missed – I would have had people selling things in the stands before the show to increase the atmosphere). But fifteen years and three versions of Faust later, I’m finding even more to like in Damned Yankees than I did the first time I saw it, including the convincing heart break of Meg (Jenny Delisle), Joe’s faithful, loyal, lonely wife. It really is a classic and I think the story translates fine to the UK as a sports-obsessed man is as easily imagined here as back home. Perhaps Bollocks Beckham beckons as a new adaptation?

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, April 3rd. It continues through April 12th.)

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