a theatre, film & pop culture review
Having heard mixed reviews, I walked into the City Center not sure what to expect. While I’ve always had a soft spot for The Pajama Game (due mostly to its clever and tuneful score/lyrics), I knew that the musical-making team of Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, while promising, was short-lived due to Ross’s untimely death at age 29 only months after the Broadway premiere of Yankees. One can only imagine the varied and talented work he and Adler would have accomplished together had they only had the time.
As the second and, sadly, final of their two shows together, Damn Yankees charmingly capitalizes on America’s favorite pastime during the height of baseball’s popularity in the 50s. Meg is frustrated with her husband Joe, a loyal and exasperated fan of the rather lackluster Washington Senators, who spends more time yelling at the bungling ballplayers on television than he does affectionately conversing with her. When Joe encounters the commanding and delectably devilish Mr. Applegate, he rashly sells his soul – with added escape clause, of course, him being a real estate man and all – for a shot to become the brilliant ballplayer who can take his cherished Senators all the way.
While George Abbott and Douglass Wallop’s Faustian book is quaint and rather simplistic, the actors make the most of it, and there are some very fine performances. Will and Grace star, Sean Hayes, was clearly the audience favorite, as he evoked an off-handedly facetious and smooth Satan who gamely attempts to corrupt the upright – and verging on dull – “Shoeless” Joe Hardy (the charming and beautifully voiced Cheyenne Jackson) to enter into an affair with his sexy protege, Lola (the flexible and engaging Jane Krakowski). Hayes may not be the strongest singer, but with only one musical number – the sardonic and show-stopping “Those Were the Good Old Days” – he brings the house down, accompanying himself on the piano (“Yes, I’m really playing”) and delightfully playing directly the to the audience.
While the stars shine, giving sparkle to the many memorable songs, the production goes a bit awry whenever it attempts to showcase the signature Fosse choreography. Choreographer Mary MacLeod attempts to faithfully recreate the dancing man’s famously strict movements – snapping fingers, tilted bowler hats, isolated hips and shoulders – but the ensemble never quite masters the master. A bit sloppy, the dances are never as sharp and contained as they should be. What’s more, the Fosse style appears oddly anachronistic in a baseball musical that takes place in the conservative 50s, and its presence in this production only serves to highlight those superfluous numbers that were added for Yankees‘s original star (Gwen Verdon) and/or to showcase Fosse’s talent. To this point, the mambo number (“Who’s Got the Pain?”) performed by Joe’s fan club as the act one closer is baffling and frustratingly unintegrated. While Fosse’s sharp and isolated style adds to and develops a show like Sweet Charity which takes place in a 60s dance hall, it fails to characterize Yankees, and unfortunately, director John Rando’s staging doesn’t help: transitions between dance numbers and dialogue are awkward and stilted.
Despite its choreographic flaws and the somewhat dated book, City Center’s Damn Yankees offers an overall charming evening at the theatre, and the two individuals largely to be accredited for such success are the musical makers themselves, Adler and Ross. With the wistful ballad “A Man Doesn’t Know,” the bouncy and infectious “Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, MO,” and the seductive “Whatever Lola Wants,” Yankees can’t help but steal your “Heart.”