After a string of failures and no-shows, the Marquis Theater finally has a tenant deserving of a long run, and in a winter that just won’t quit, this high-spirited, warmhearted “Damn Yankees” comes not a moment too soon. Occasionally pinning a ’90s tail on a ’50s donkey, the show is spun out with great verve and style.
Sure, the whole is more than the sum of its parts, but to score with “Damn Yankees” all you gotta have, to quote the musical’s most famous lyric, is heart, and this “Damn Yankees” has heart to spare. It’s good, brainless fun — a first-rate production of a second-rate show.
If plans to telecast “Yankees” later this spring via pay-per-view pan out, it also should go over well on the small screen, where star Bebe Neuwirth is sure to bring in plenty of her “Cheers” fans. And they’ll be in for a hell of a surprise — pun intended.
Director Jack O’Brien has pulled off a small coup, snickering at the show’s ‘ 50s middlebrow sentimentality while at the same time heightening the sentiment. Gore Vidal did this back in the ’50s, with the gentle “Visit to a Small Planet.” Like Vidal, O’Brien uses television as his skeleton key into comfy, postwar suburban America, a world of phones, Formica and Fiesta Ware. All are paid humorous homage in Douglas W. Schmidt’s sets and David C. Woolard’s costumes, color-coordinated in the preferred fruit schemes of the time: avocado, lemon, lime, peach.
Here in the living room of Joe (Dennis Kelly) and Meg (Linda Stephens) Boyd are the pole lamps, free-form tables and ellipsoid lighting fixtures that instantly establish the period against a backdrop of TV screens (remember rooftop antennas?) looming behind the actual set on which disgruntled real estate salesman Joe watches his beloved, hapless Washington Senators lose, again , to the invincible Bombers.
Why, he’d sell his soul to give the Senators a long-ball hitter who could put them in contention. That, of course, is exactly what he very nearly does. With a little salesmanship from the Devil, Applegate (Victor Garber), Joe is transformed into strapping Joe Hardy (Jarrod Emick), soon known as Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, Mo.
For six months he’s a phenom, though even with the considerable enticements of Applegate’s sexy assistant, Lola (Neuwirth), he can’t lick his homesickness. In the end, it’s paunchy Joe Boyd who carries the day — for both family and the home team.
“Damn Yankees” is a slim offering whose creators simply put tracing paper over their first hit, “The Pajama Game.” The show hasn’t aged well — like the Senators, the soul of the country has moved west — and so O’Brien wraps it in a ’90s sensibility: Applegate’s D.C. headquarters is in the basement of the Senate chamber, and there are references — some sly, some thuddingly heavy-handed — to everything from “It’s A Wonderful Life” to Edsels, Joe McCarthy, and J. Edgar Hoover’s alleged homosexuality.
With a nod from original director and co-librettist George Abbott, O’Brien also tries with limited success to flesh out the three principal women’s roles, sports reporter Gloria Thorpe (Vicki Lewis), Meg and Lola. Thus Meg gets to call her husband “old boy” no fewer than three times so that Joe’s “Goodbye, Old Girl ,” sung to his sleeping wife as he sneaks off, doesn’t sound quite so much like a farmer’s tribute to his expired mare. When Joe first dazzles the Senators with his batting power, Gloria’s response is a jarring “nice ass.” And Lola now makes a more sympathetic transition from Devil’s disciple to simpering acolyte.
For all the effort, “Damn Yankees” still plays like an artifact from a bygone time. But what a pleasure this production is anyway. The Douglas Besterman orchestrations are muscular (23 in the orchestra!); Rob Marshall’s choreography recalls “Whorehouse”-era Tommy Tune in the ensemble numbers while paying lovely homage to original dancemaker Bob Fosse and his star, Gwen Verdon, in the numbers for Lola; and costume designer David Woolard clearly had fun; mambo-crazed Sister (goofy Susan Mansur) gets a polka-dots-and-playing-card number, while spunky Gloria sports capri pants and bolero jackets.
Over it all, O’Brien has done a fine job of greasing the show’s creaky ’50s musical machinery. He’s given Marshall a new dance number — the funny “Blooper Ballet”– and there’s now a bit in which Joe endorses everything from Camel cigarettes to Wheaties, that moves things along speedily. The director shuffled several numbers, including making “Whatever Lola Wants (Lola Gets)” the Act 1 finale.
One striking mistake is giving “Two Lost Souls” to Lola and Applegate — surely to give the talented Garber another number — and while logic isn’t the show’s strong point to begin with, this makes no sense because the tune belongs to Lola and Joe. Worse, Garber’s and Neuwirth’s voices don’t blend well.
O’Brien also fails to settle on a consistent tone for his actors. Garber, one of the best in the business, so camps up Applegate that in the end, his inherent charm is almost totally subsumed; Ray Walston may have been an odd choice for the original, but he made Applegate sly, almost impish. Garber’s snotty and petulant when he isn’t being outrageously hammy, and while he puts over “Those Were the Good Old Days” with appealing relish, more often than not he’s too obvious to be much fun.
Many will find Neuwirth sensational, and it will be hard to argue with them. She’s a breathtakingly limber dancer, she has a fine voice, and she’s in great shape. But with her peroxide-blond hair cropped like Madonna’s on her “Girly Show” tour, and a frame sure to strike some as frighteningly skeletal, Neuwirth is nobody’s idea of a ’50s seductress. It’s a wholly admirable performance, but even if you aren’t moved to worry about the actress’s health, it’s tough to warm to.
Both Joes are terrific: Kelly delivers “Goodbye, Old Girl” with soaring sweetness, while Emick brings a fresh-faced, square-jawed athleticism to young Joe reminiscent of Neuwirth’s “Cheers” co-star Woody Harrelson. Stephens, magnificent in the musical adaptation of “Wings,” strikes many poignant notes as Meg. Dick Latessa brings a nostalgic, Leo Durocher gruffness to club manager Van Buren, while also showing great vocal chops on “Heart.” Among the leads, only the rubber-faced Lewis fails to rise above the ordinary as Gloria — a thankless role, to be sure.
Nevertheless, “Damn Yankees” is immensely appealing. It faces stiff competition from more serious contenders this spring, but that may prove to be its saving grace: Like the upcoming “Grease” revival, “Damn Yankees” isn’t out to make a serious case for a great work of art. It promises no more than a view from the bleacher seats of the American musical — where you can’t see much but you can have a great time with friends and maybe snare a long ball or two.