The optimism, innocence and breezy charm of certain mid-'50s musicals can be like a cure-all tonic, which makes "Damn Yankees" the right kind of show for an America plagued by soaring gas prices and a free-falling economy
If only they could bottle it. The optimism, innocence and breezy charm of certain mid-’50s musicals can be like a cure-all tonic, which makes “Damn Yankees” the right kind of show for an America plagued by soaring gas prices and a free-falling economy. The 1955 reteaming of composer-lyricists Richard Adler and Jerry Ross and book writer George Abbott isn’t quite the equal of their work the previous year on “The Pajama Game.” But despite a plot that doesn’t withstand scrutiny, the entertaining baseball-themed take on the Faust legend has a string of memorable songs, some exuberant dancing and a fair share of wit, all of which are on display in this lovingly staged revival.
The second production in the annual Encores! Summer Stars series, the show follows last season’s auspicious start with “Gypsy,” which segued from its initial limited run to a Broadway transfer, earning Tonys for all three leads.
The lure of a short engagement doing choice material from Broadway’s vaults has again attracted a top-drawer cast, with Sean Hayes making an assured New York stage debut, Jane Krakowski retouching her musical theater roots between “30 Rock” seasons and Cheyenne Jackson taking a break from “Xanadu” to extend his range. And in John Rando, the production has a director who continues to demonstrate in Encores! stagings that there’s still plenty of pleasure to be derived from period pieces with nothing but fun on their minds.
Unlike in the 1994 Broadway revival, which updated the book with a droll contemporary attitude and a retro-kitsch veneer, Rando and music director Rob Berman revert to the earlier template.
Grounding the show smack in the middle of postwar suburbia and stripping away the cynicism of hindsight, they stick closely to the original book by Abbott and Douglass Wallop (based on the latter’s novel “The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant”), using Don Walker’s 1955 orchestrations and Bob Fosse’s jazzy choreography — reproduced by Mary MacLeod. The aim, as far as possible, is to create a facsimile of the vintage experience, without commentary.
If the gambit exposes the weaknesses of the material, particularly in some wayward second-act plotting that threatens to unravel (Rando could afford to pick up the pace a little), it also heightens many of its strengths. To quote one of the show’s enduring numbers, “You’ve gotta have heart,” which is what the creative team and cast have supplied.
The story evolves out of a wish expressed by frustrated Washington Senators fan Joe Boyd (P.J. Benjamin) that his losing team somehow triumph over the unbeatable New York Yankees: “I’d sell my soul for one long ball hitter.” Enter the Devil in the guise of suave Mr. Applegate (Hayes), who strikes a deal to transform the paunchy middle-aged couch potato into athletic 22-year-old power slugger Joe Hardy (Jackson).
The young ballplayer leads the Senators to a run of victories in the pennant race, but despite his overnight fame and glory, he can’t kick his homesickness or longing for his hitherto underappreciated wife, Meg (Randy Graff). Fearful his prey may slip away via an escape clause on the day of the big game, Applegate recruits seduce-and-destroy staffer Lola (Krakowski) to help him control Joe. But despite almost two centuries of hard-hearted training — “Never feel sorry for anybody” is her mantra — Lola makes the mistake of caring.
In a climate under which the country is being forced to view itself no longer as an invincible winner, the idea of a beaten-down underdog team being redeemed by a miracle has a whimsical appeal. But it’s best not to look for contemporary relevance — or an ending that makes sense — in this effervescent fantasy.
Adler and Ross clearly knew they had a winning blueprint in “The Pajama Game,” and the correlations between numbers in the two shows are uncanny: the picnic celebration of “Once a Year Day” in “Pajama” is echoed here in the baseballers’ boisterous hoe-down, “Shoeless Joe From Hannibal, Mo.”; the beatnik nightclub ambience of “Hernando’s Hideaway” is conjured again in “Two Lost Souls”; and, like “Steam Heat,” the mambo number “Who’s Got the Pain?” is wedged in with minimal narrative connection as a performance within the show.
But whether or not they were conceived on tracing paper and threaded together with some abrupt transitions, the songs are terrific. They are given buoyant treatment by Berman’s 25-piece orchestra, elevated by designer John Lee Beatty to a section of the stands above the action and obscured for much of the duration by the clever summer stock-style sets.
While the comic songs and dance numbers are the show’s best-known components, it’s the exquisite ballads that really linger in the head, from older Joe’s lovely farewell to his sleeping wife, “Goodbye, Old Girl,” to young Joe’s wistful self-reprimand, “A Man Doesn’t Know,” to his tender, Latin-flavored duet with a confused Meg, “Near to You.”
More due to the show’s traditional marketing than anything else, Lola is its default star, and Krakowski has the unenviable task of stepping into the far-more-seasoned dance shoes of Gwen Verdon in the original and Bebe Neuwirth in the ’94 revival. She gets through the sassy innuendo of “A Little Brains, a Little Talent” and the sultry tango “Whatever Lola Wants” with humor, but Krakowski doesn’t have the effortless precision moves of an ace Fosse dancer. And in “Who’s Got the Pain?,” the superior technique of her partner John Selya (“Movin’ Out”) downgrades Krakowski into a tag-along.
But, costumed by William Ivey Long to evoke Marilyn Monroe, the actress has a daffy sexiness, warmth and sweetness that make her Lola endearing and help sell the notion that this jaded seductress could be willingly suckered into complicity by her intended victim’s love for his wife.
Uncovering different shades from his “Will & Grace” persona, Hayes slyly mines every laugh he can dig out of the material. And while the sitcom training sometimes shows in his idiosyncratic shtick, it works in this vaudevillian role, often recalling Ray Walston, who played Applegate on Broadway and in the 1958 movie. Hayes gets only one number, the gleefully malevolent “Those Were the Good Old Days,” but it’s a scene-stealer, allowing him to show off his accomplished musicianship in a devilish boudoir that’s like Liberace’s room at the Playboy mansion.
The talented Jackson has mostly turned on his big voice and big charm in jokey contexts like “All Shook Up” and “Xanadu,” and it’s nice to see him maturing into a traditional leading man in the hunky John Raitt mold. He’s in splendid voice here, notably when paired with Graff, who etches a moving character out of lovesick baseball widow Meg while keeping the sentimentality on a low flame.
The supporting ranks are dotted with likable personalities shaped along period-appropriate lines, from Benjamin’s aging Joe to Michael Mulheren’s coach, Megan Lawrence’s hard-bitten reporter, John Horton’s team owner and the excitement-starved, gossipy baseball fans of Veanne Cox and Kathy Fitzgerald.
Awash in the comicstrip colors of Peter Kaczorowski’s vibrant lighting, “Damn Yankees” may not quite be a classic, but with its melodic tunes and feel-good spirit, it’s still flavorful candy.