‘Damn Yankees’ steps up to plate

Encores! Series hopes second musical is a hit

Will Encores! Summer Stars hit “Damn Yankees” out of the park?

Expectations are high among theater fans in the bleachers, since Summer Stars, the series of tuner revivals that stemmed from the popular springtime Encores! program of concert readings of overlooked musicals, batted 1,000 in its initial outing.

Summer Stars’ 2007 staging of “Gypsy” went on to a strong-selling Broadway transfer that picked up three Tonys June 15, including one for Patti LuPone as the musical’s ferocious stage mother. Alums of the 12-year-old original Encores! series include “Wonderful Town,” which played Broadway for more than a year beginning in 2003, and the long-running 1996 revival of “Chicago.”

But Encores! toppers insist that a Rialto home run is never their guiding goal. In fact, they have a far more modest model for success.

“It’s like we’re doing summer stock, but on the highest level you could do it,” says Encores! music director Rob Berman. “In the middle of July, it’s fun for the theater crowd to have something like this to come to.”

Sean Hayes, Jane Krakowski and Cheyenne Jackson topline the familiar 1955 Richard Adler & Jerry Ross tuner about a baseball fan who makes a deal with the devil.

“Because we’re doing a well-known show with bankable stars, I think there is some more expectation for future life,” say Encores! a.d. Jack Viertel.

But the happy-go-lucky “Yankees,” which runs through July 27, is a far different work than the dark “Gypsy,” a contrast Viertel hopes will help curb those expectations.

“I was very focused on doing something very different from ‘Gypsy,’ but still one with a big-band, great-American-musical feel,” he says.

Summer Stars was inaugurated by Gotham nonprofit presenter City Center last year to attract auds to its 2,700-seat theater — newly available for hot-weather use after the long-awaited installation of an air-conditioning system.

Summer Stars stagings are fully produced and run for three weeks, as opposed to the single weekend granted each of the three annual Encores! offerings. The 2007 production of “Gypsy” at City Center was capitalized at around $3 million, and Viertel estimates the budget for “Yankees” is about on par.

Fidelity to the original score and production is a key component of Encores! And with legit production costs continually on the rise, large-scale orchestras — like the ones seen in Encores! shows (25 pieces for “Yankees”), or in Lincoln Center Theater’s current “South Pacific” — are generally only feasible with nonprofit support.

“Gypsy” was helmed by the show’s book writer, Arthur Laurents, who had directed two prior revivals of the show. “Yankees” is equally faithful: The large band plays the original orchestrations, and helmer John Rando’s production uses Bob Fosse’s choreography from the 1955 preem.

“The way we’re presenting it, it’s a real throwback,” Berman says. “For Summer Stars, it can be kind of a signature to be very loyal to the original production.”

Viertel estimates that most of the Summer Stars auds come from the tri-state area of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. With their limited engagements, the productions don’t have time to pick up steam gradually.

“It’s a funny model,” he says. “With a three-week run, it’s a little bit like a tour. It’s not long enough to build, so we’re sort of a hybrid in terms of marketing.”

Encores! receives passive participation fees for Rialto transfers like “Gypsy” or “Chicago.” Jeffrey Richards (“August: Osage County,” “Spring Awakening”) holds the rights to “Yankees” and would be involved in any potential transfer.

But the Encores! team prefers to remain focused on building the Summer Stars series into an annual tradition.

“To an extent, the first one was partially to see if we could pull it off,” Viertel says. “Now the second one is partially about having a third one.”

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