The good news is, Jerry Lewis doesn’t spaz out in “Damn Yankees.” The bad news is, Jerry Lewis doesn’t spaz out in “Damn Yankees.” Anyone familiar with the dual personalities the legendary comedian displayed in his signature movie, “The Nutty Professor,” will immediately see what’s happening onstage at the Marquis Theater. Lewis may have taken over the role of the devilish Applegate, but his tuxedoed, faux-suave hep cat persona has taken control, and he keeps the funny-voiced, manic simpleton from rearing his mugging head too often.
Too bad, really. If you’re going to go with Jerry Lewis on Broadway, why not go all the way? Believe it or not, “Damn Yankees” could stand to be a bit dumb and dumber. As it is, Lewis’ stiff, underplayed line readings feel flat, even nervous, in the comedian’s much ballyhooed Broadway debut. Audience response is strongest when he lets loose with a “laaaaaaady” or other recognizable bit of shtick.
Lewis handles the song-and-dance numbers with a trouper’s bravado, and they succeed on those terms: This is a man who can get more laughs by dropping a cane than catching it, and he knows how to squeeze every bit of vaudeville from a simple act like dialing a rotary telephone. Odd then, that a more sustained, higher-volume comic tone isn’t sought; even the production’s original Applegate, an over-the-top Victor Garber, understood that this role is only as big as the performance.
One hopes — and suspects — that Lewis will loosen up and have more fun as he settles into his long run on Broadway and the road. His audiences will be there regardless. Why not make them happy?
As for the other recent cast changes, Charlotte d’Amboise steps into the role of Lola, the seductress from hell, with all of the necessary chops, moves and sex appeal. Her Lola is more full-bodied than Bebe Neuwirth’s original, and she plays well off Lewis. But the usually scene-stealing Liz Larsen makes less of an impression as reporter Gloria Thorpe, matching the rest of the cast in know-how but lacking the spunk of original Vicki Lewis.
The rest of the production remains as fresh as when the revival opened last season, with Linda Stephens, Susan Mansur, Dennis Kelly, Dick Latessa and, especially, Jarrod Emick continuing their rightfully acclaimed performances. Until Lewis finds his voice (preferably the high-pitched one), they’ll carry the show.