On opening night, the “Damn Yankees” set had some first-act trouble with a stairway that didn’t always move the way it was supposed to. And that just about sums up the show’s minuses.
This is one terrific production, a theatrical grand slam. Among the audience members it delighted were 106-year-old George Abbott, the original director and co-librettist, and Richard Adler, co-composer/lyricist of the marvelous score.
Both must have been pleased with the way Jack O’Brien treated their creations. His respectful and innovative direction demonstrates what revivals ought to be — enhanced reinventions of the original. And, to bring life to his conception, he’s assembled a cast that is superior.
The big name, of course, is Bebe Neuwirth, personifying the vamp Lola. From her entrance late in the first act — legs first, appropriately — through the end, she gives Lola the goods.
With four big numbers, Neuwirth gets a real workout, and — high kicking, strutting and slinking, in chorus or alone — she’s up to all of choreographer Rob Marshall’s formidable challenges. Although she’s plenty sexy, she provides the comedic touches and soft heart that make Lola more than a mere femme fatale.
The George Abbott-Douglass Wallop book gives a twist on the Faust story of selling out to the devil in return for worldly desire.
In this case, middle-aged Joe Boyd wants to become a young baseball slugger to help the Senators defeat the hated Yanks. Because Joe negotiates an escape clause, the devil — here named Applegate — calls in Lola to seduce Joe to permanent perdition.
As Applegate, Victor Garber is an enchanting rogue, smarmy, supercilious and less snide than the most famous Applegate, Ray Walston. Besides his expressive ease with quips and double takes, he sings and dances with spirit. As old Joe, Dennis Kelly excels in his love ballads to his abandoned wife. And young Joe, handsome Jere Shea, proves equally at home with a bat or a song.
Other standouts in the impeccable ensemble are Dick Latessa as the manager; Linda Stephens as Joe’s faithful and loving wife; Vicki Lewis as the brassy and enterprising reporter; and Susan Mansur as the wife’s tacky but caring sister.
This clearly is a major production, and O’Brien uses everything the Old Globe’s big theater offers, including a rare pit orchestra. As Douglas W. Schmidt’s designs go into action, sets fly, slide and sink (usually), trapdoors open and platforms rise, evoking everything from a suburban home to a baseball diamond.
David F. Segal’s lighting works well always, especially in the dreamy number “Near to You,” and aids Kevin T. Brueckner’s Applegate-related special effects, heavy on sparklers and flames.
A bit of work remains to be done. Besides that balky stairway, there are some script errors. Joe, a lefty, wouldn’t be a shortstop, and the cited Yankee stars include Al Rosen, who played for only the Cleveland Indians.
That last mistake particularly needs to be corrected since this show will surely be seen by a lot of New Yorkers.