August 23, 2014
‘Damn Yankees” isn’t a show that’s aged particularly well. Its creakiness shows in Light Opera Works less-than inspired production of the 1950s-set musical about a man who sells his soul to the devil in order to ensure a winning season for his beloved baseball team. Directed and choreographed by Kevin Bellie, the sluggers here are sluggish. More problematic still, the deal-making devil is more of a clown than a menace.
Richard Adler and Jerry Ross’s score has its strengths: Songs including “Heart,” “Two Lost Souls” and “The Game” remain crowd-pleasers. But George Abbott and Douglass Wallop’s book is more clunker than classic. For one thing, the story doesn’t shy away from cultural appropriation. Maybe having the central vixen emulate a spicy Spanish Senorita was funny/sexy in 1957 when “Damn Yankees” premiered. These days, it does nothing but reinforce a tired stereotype. And speaking of reductive stereotypes: With one exception, the women on stage can be categorized as bad-girl seductresses, saintly homemakers or shrill, man-crazed middle-aged harpies. I understand this is a testosterone-fueled musical centering on baseball and the men who love it, but that’s no excuse for reducing all but one of the women (sportswriter Gloria Thorpe, more on her in a moment) into your basic madonna/whore/spinster molds. It’s annoying.
The central trouble with Bellie’s “Damn Yankees” lies with Lucifer (Rudy Hogenmiller). It’s tough to tell whether Hogenmiller’s performance is the result of poor direction or the actor’s own choices. Either way, the veteran showman makes a rare misstep. There’s not even a whiff of danger to Hogenmiller’s Mr. Applegate (the nom de plume the Lord of the Underworld assumes for the ball season). Nor does he radiate anything remotely akin to the supernaturally irresistible powers of persuasion you’d expect from a fellow whose stock in trade is leading people into temptation. Mr. Applegate is more buffoon than Beelzebub. Hogenmiller’s considerable charisma and grace are largely squandered. We get a glimpse of them in “Those Were the Good Old Days,” when Hogenmiller proves that he’s got moves of a dancer less than half his age. Still, it’s tough to imagine Mr. Applegate successfully shilling aluminum siding, never mind talking somebody out of their soul.
As the fellow whose soul is supposedly in peril, Kirk Swenk’s Joe Boyd is easily believable as middle-aged ball fanatic. As Boyd’s alter-ego, the 22-year-old phenom Joe Hardy, Brian Acker has a beautifully poignant tenor and an affable presence. More memorable is Jenny Lamb, who brings a brassy belt and infectious energy to intrepid gal reporter Gloria Thorpe. Then there’s Lola, the Devil’s home-wrecking henchwoman. Erica Evans does a blazing fine job with the problematic part. She’s got the exquisite lines of a ballet dancer and the raw allure of a bombshell. It’s a killer combination.
The production also benefits from Jesus Perez’ and Jane DeBondt’s lavishly colorful costume design (the 1950s shirtwaist dresses are gorgeous) and Adam Veness’s bold, colorful sets. As for conductor Roger L. Bingaman’s 27-piece orchestra, it sounds terrific.
But costumes, sets and even a crackerjack orchestra can’t overcome the problems inherent to the book or a less-than sizzling Satan. All in all, “Damn Yankees” fails to hit a home run.