Review: ‘Damn Yankees’

In a whimsical exercise in fantasy over fact, Reprise! Broadway's Best staging of the 1956 tuner "Damn Yankees" has been updated to the 1980s, with the hometown L.A. Dodgers battling the dreaded Yankees for the pennant.

In a whimsical exercise in fantasy over fact, Reprise! Broadway’s Best staging of the 1956 tuner “Damn Yankees” has been updated to the 1980s, with the hometown L.A. Dodgers (instead of the American League’s Washington Senators) battling the dreaded Yankees for the pennant. Jason Alexander, in his adaptation and helming efforts, attempts to convey the lightweight charm of the original storyline while instilling a contemporary rhythmic undertone to the show. The results are mixed at best: the musically malleable 14-member house band is impeccable; Lee Martino’s grab bag choreography is not as successful.

Alexander, in his helming debut as artistic director of Reprise!, keeps the central plot intact, but his pacing is turgid. With by-the-numbers precision, the scenes move methodically forward; but there is little sense of an evolving plot with shifting emotional dynamics. 

Promising to bring the championship back to Dodgertown, satan incarnate Mr. Applegate (Cleavant Derricks) lures aging fan Joe Boyd (Ken Page) into a Faustian deal to transform himself into baseball wunderkind Joe Hardy (Ty Taylor). Interjecting their own agendas into the proceedings are Joe’s long-suffering wife Meg (Armelia McQueen), snoopy sports reporter Gloria (Lesli Margherita) and Applegate’s vamp-on-demand Lola (Meg Gillentine).

Derricks offers an often-hilarious turn as the Hades-dwelling wheeler-dealer who conjures up his misdeeds with all the fervor of a stump-thomping Southern Baptist preacher. His soul-condemning, “Those Were the Good Old Days,” provides much-needed zest to an underwhelming, low-key second act.

Taylor struggles to establish his character or communicate the evolving mindset of Hardy, the young ballplayer who yearns to reclaim his former life. What do work are his soaring vocals on the wistful ballad, “A Man Doesn’t Know” and the Hardy/Boyd/Meg trio, “Near To You.”

Faring much better is Gillentine’s Lola, who is quite believable as a beauteous vixen with great comic timing. She even manages to instill veracity into Martino’s awkward, faux Fosse stagings of “A Little Brains, A Little Talent,” “Whatever Lola Wants” and “Who’s Got the Pain?”

Actually, Martino’s musical numbers borrow their stylings from numerous sources, sans any particular point of view, ranging from a simplistic cha cha cha rendering of “Heart” to high school aerobics turn on “The Game.”   

Margherita exudes a large dose of earthiness into reporter Gloria’s relentless search for the real story behind Joe Hardy. This carries through in her funk-driven rendering of “Shoeless Joe From Hannibal, MO.” Page and McQueen are endearing as the elderly, life-worn couple who project a captivating sense of love re-born in their reprise of “A Man Doesn’t Know.”

Adding ongoing comic relief are Meg’s wildly irreverent pals, Sister and Dory, played to the scenery-chewing hilt by Jackee Harry and Lillias White. Production’s musical highlight is White’s gospel-driven reprise of “Heart,” which escalates into a full cast revival meeting.

Francoise-Pierre Couture’s minimal sets and evocative lighting create a proper environment.

Damn Yankees

Freud Playhouse; 585 seats; $75 top

Production

A Reprise! Broadway's Best presentation of a musical in two acts, music and lyrics by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, book by George Abbott and Douglass Wallop, adapted by Jason Alexander. Directed by Alexander. Music direction, Gerald Sternbach. Choreography, Lee Martino.

Creative

Sets and lighting, Francois-Pierre Couture; costumes, Christina Haatainen; sound, Philip G. Allen; stage manager, Lindsay Martens. Opened, reviewed Nov. 7, 2007; runs through Nov. 25. Running time: 2 HOURS, 45 MIN.

Cast

Joe Hardy - Ty Taylor Applegate - Cleavant Derricks Lola - Meg Gillentine Joe Boyd - Ken Page Meg - Armelia McQueen Gloria - Lesli Margherita - Sister - Jackee Harry Dory - Lillias White Coach Burns - Hassan El-Amin Lynch/Commissioner - David Lloyd Wilson Postmaster - Gary Gordon
With: Kim Arnett, Brian Conway, Janelle Dote, Ray Garcia, Ericka Hunter, Robert Marra, Anthony Manough, Glenda Morales, Raquis Petree, Alice Rietveld, Sharone Sayegh, Scott Simmons, Tim Talman, John Todd.
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