Growing up in the US, when I heard the title of this show I always assumed it was some kind of comedy about Northerners moving to the South. So typical of me, a non-sports-lover, to completely miss the thought that this might be a references to the New York Yankees baseball team! If you’re also completely in the dark, I’ll fill you in on the plot (in part to tempt you to make the time and travel investment): Damn Yankees is a 1955 Broadway musical – this is the golden age, people, when the very best stuff was being written – about a dumpy, middle-aged real estate agent who, in a moment of frustration, shouts, “I’d give my soul to see my team win the pennant!” In best style, this summons the devil (or some version thereof – he’s called Mr Applegate), who promptly transforms flabby Joe Boyd into super athlete Joe Hardy, a 20 ish young man with a winning smile and an even more winning hitting arm. He promises to have Joe be the man who takes his team to the top – with “the standard payment” (it’s not discussed in much detail). The rest of the show involves Joe trying to win over the team, its manager, and the nosy reporter Gloria while Mr Applegate, with a little help from she-demon Lola, tries to get Joe to give up on his escape clause. Comedy, baseball, hummable songs and unexpected mambo dancing ensue.
If you’re a regular reader, you must be going, “Webcowgirl! What’s up with ruining the ‘go in looking for surprises’ approach?” Although my normal approach to shows is to keep myself in the dark, this just isn’t true for musicals (or Shakespeare). This is a classic, a standard, and while there’s occasionally a show I won’t know, I have to be honest about the fact that I go in with expectations. I am excited to see how people will make the old shows fresh again. And I enjoy sitting in a room full of people singing their hearts out beautifully. It’s my guilty pleasure, only I don’t feel guilty about it.
Guilt isn’t the kind of feeling that would come to mind with Damn Yankees anyway, as it’s really just a giant ball of positivity with little drizzles of sauciness to make it fun. The songs combine soaring vocals with solid feeling and character development, getting you behind the perennial losers that make up The Washington Senators (a team long wiped off of the American baseball map) with “Heart,” making you laugh with blue balls anthem “The Game” (surprisingly racy for the time!), and just flat out entertaining you with “Two Lost Souls.” The theme of the devil and his seductive associate allows for a bunch of songs about ruining peoples lives – done comically – which contrasts heartbreakingly with Joe’s love song to his long suffering wife (“Goodbye, Old Girl”) and her return of his feeling with “Near to You.” Who would think a play about a negligent husband and a forgotten wife would leave you wanting to see both of them together again? But Damn Yankees does – it’s just a spectacularly well written show.
You can still screw this up, though: but I’m pleased to report this production was (pun alert) “pitch perfect,” from the thrilling singing all the way through to the prints of the women’s dresses. (Sure the guys had too long hair but I thought it made them look yummy.) And then the production ramped it up, with great dance numbers (the baseball team in towels! I didn’t know where to look!) and vibrant performances. I was especially impressed with Jonathan D Ellis as Mr Applegate, from the moment he appeared cozied up above the fireplace in a sharkskin suit to his burn-the-house down number “Those Were the Good Old Days,” in which he had us eating out of the palm of his hand – it was almost embarrassing but we were simply mesmerized. You could say the same for the backline on Poppy Tierney’s first dress – what a Lola! I think she had a rough job ahead of her – first, competing with the legacy of Gwen Verdon, and secondly, making a character work that has nearly three entirely different personalities to manage – while singing and hoofing her heart out. And you know what? She won me over. (I’m sorry Gwen, it had to happen eventually.)
Being Meg, the faithful wife, is hardly as exciting, but Nova Skipp kept us hoping for Joe to succeed, and both our Joes (old Joe, Gary Bland, and young Joe, Alex Lodge) were warm and winning with voices that sold the parts. Gosh, I want to be critical, but when it comes down to complaining about how Lola would have looked better in latex and Elizabeth Futter’s voice couldn’t compete with the men in the ball team, well, sometimes, in Lola’s words, you’ve got to “give in.” This was a great show, ridiculously underpriced in its unmiked glory, and I was planning my return about ten minutes into it. Don’t miss it.
(This review was for the opening performance on Tuesday, October 7th, 2014. It continues through November 8th and I expect it will sell out soon. Look, here’s the link to the Landor, if you don’t click it now you’ll only have yourself to blame!)