Beware of deals with the devil. The North Shore Music Theater, just north of Boston, got the one-time-only OK for the in-the-round theater to adapt “Damn Yankees,” switching the New York Yankee competitors from the original show’s Washington Senators to the Red Sox. The revamped production — which landed a marketing assist from Sox management — works in the Boston team’s true-to-life rivalry with the Gotham dynasty, the famed Fenway “curse” and assorted Beantown references. But the devil has the last laugh, because the result is a so-so production likely to be forgiven only in this particular province.
This production’s sins, however, are not with the script or design but with its lack of snap, wit and imagination — although it does manage to convey some heart, thanks to supporting perfs. But the essential leads — the original deal-or-no-deal bargainer, Mr. Applegate, the seductress Lola and slugging sensation Joe Hardy — fail to score in a show whose thin production values look only OK for the minor leagues. (No one is likely to accuse this production of being on steroids.)
Scribe Joe DiPietro (“I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change,” “All Shook Up”) does a deft job of switching teams without damaging the iffy plot (and the new ending has a nice twist or two). He also artfully ties in the devilish “curse” that began when the Sox sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees in the early ’20s so the Sox owner could invest in the Broadway musical “No No, Nanette” (a bit of disputed lore).
Things do get a bit fuzzy with the overall premise because of the difference between winning the league pennant (the object of the original show) and a triumph in the World Series — which the Sox finally did achieve two years ago. But “Damn Yankees” is the type of show where one shouldn’t quibble with verisimilitude. The show is simply silly, tuneful fun with a bunch of audience-pleasing songs (though for this go-round, “Who’s Got the Pain” — admittedly a loopy trifle — has been cut).
But a sense of wicked playfulness is missing in the lead perfs of Jim Walton as the devil and Shannon Lewis as Lola. Perhaps trying to avoid the campier aspects of the role, Walton underplays. Lewis, who looks smashing despite some poor costume choices and a cheesy wig, lacks the fun, charm and pizzazz of Lola. Here she’s just another vamp: When the devil mocks her seduction, we have to agree.
George Merrick is serviceable as the youthful and square star player, but he lacks charisma and the chops to make him a true sensation.
Better are Steve Luker’s crusty baseball coach, Christy Farber’s sports reporter (with a great belting voice) and all the boys on the team. Richard Pruitt and Kay Walbye, as the aging baseball fan who makes the Faustian deal and his long-suffering wife, give the show its true heart, and their “Near to You” (with Merrick) is a highlight.
The original 1955 version, with the devil camped out in D.C. among his congressional disciples, remains a better pitch for a wider aud. This footnote production should play well in the Sox suburbs, but to have any interest beyond this special season, it needs to make a far better deal next time.