Reviewed by Will Stackman
Old Nick is a Yankee fan and hates the Red Sox. Or so the North Shore Music Theatre's season opener, "Damn Yankees" claims. Which doesn't explain last season for either team. However, the concept, initiated by Artistic Director Jon Kimbell and worked into the book by Joe DePietro of "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change" fame, has breathed life back into the old chestnut, at least for Boston audiences. This archetypical '50s show, full of Tin Pan Alley tunes with Top Ten lyrics and an almost corny book hasn't merely been revived, but resuscitated.
North Shore seems to have rebounded completely from last summer's fire, which at the very least strengthened their community base. With this production, New England's largest nonprofit theater is reaching further afield, joining forces with Red Sox marketing to promote the show. They of course had to get permission from MTI to change the script and in fact got the assistance of Mrs. Joy Abbott in doing so. The result stays close to Abbott/Wallop text while playing up to the hometown team. It was not surprising to see Wally, the Red Sox Green Monster mascot, warming up the opening night audience by getting sections of the theatre to do the Wave.
Director/choreographer Barry Ivan hews close to the style of the original, starting off with the "Hopeless, Hapless Ballet" of bumbling baseball, with the tight domestic scene between the Boyd's rising up into the middle of the stage to segue into "Six Months of the Year." Kaye Walbye and Richard Pruitt are perfect casting as Meg and Joe, the baseball-obsessed local realtor and his homemaker wife. When Applegate rises up in a cloud of smoke to make Joe his proposition, the magic begins. Jim Walton has all the right moves, but forgoes Ray Walston's sleight-of-hand, which would be less effective in the round anyway. Joe Boyd becomes Joe Hardy, baseball wonder, from Hannibal, MO. played ably by George Merrick, headed for greatness and doom as a member of the 1957 Red Sox.
The plot--what there is--thickens when Joe Hardy takes a room at Meg Boyd's house, much to the delight of Becky Barta (Sister) and Mary Callanan (Doris). These two local veterans, Barta the reigning interpreter of Patsy Kline and Callanan an award-winning cabaret performer steal the show from time to time. Applegate is forced to bring out his secret weapon, Lola Copabanana, played by Broadway dancer Shannon Lewis. Ivan gives her many of Gwen Verdon's original moves to great effect, though her vocal performance could use a bit more mockery. Her two numbers towards the end of Act One, "A Little Brains..." and "Whatever Lola Wants..." are strong show biz, though the simple duo in between for Joe and Meg, "A Man Doesn't Know" has more effect on the audience. The center of the act, the anthem "Heart", lead by Steve Luker as manager Van Buren, and "Shoeless Joe...", lead by Christy Faber as Gloria the news hen are effective, but even with Ivan's choreographic invention, stuck in '50s nostalgia. The act ends in crisis as Gloria reveals that she hasn't been able to confirm Joe's background, putting his position on the team in jeopardy.
The second act starts with that paean to training "The Game," an energetic number of little significance featuring the team, who exercise up a storm. The simple trio "Near You" which follows, between Meg and both Joes, is more effective, especially in the round, as the three crisscross the center of the stage. The show gets back to glittery fantasy with Applegate's vaudeville-inspired "The Good Old Days," staged with the assistance of dancer Amanda Paul, who's the understudy for both Faber and Lewis. The routine is clever, but probably needs a touch of stage magic to complete the effect. The number is a warmup for "Two Lost Souls", probably the show's best song, a duet for Merrick and Lewis. Ivan pulls out all the stops, bringing in extra dancers, ably doubled by four members of the team plus Faber and Paul, and a live sax player. Lewis then gets to show her stuff during the break before the end of the song. It's great musical comedy, even though it doesn't advance the plot one bit. Eleven o'clock numbers don't have to.
"Damn Yankees" wraps up quickly thereafter with no additional music. The reprise of "A Woman Doesn't Know" after Joe Boyd's return serves as counterpoint for Applegate, the Yankee fan's descent from whence he came. DePietro's best rewriting occurs during Walton's demonic final rant, bringing things up to date. The curtain call, in true NSMT style, sung to an endless chorus of "Heart" includes the unfurling of a copy of the 2004 World Series banner and confetti floating down onto the stage. Incidentally, the WS trophy was displayed in the lobby on opening night as well.
This show gives designer Russell Parkman a chance to turn the renovated NSMT arena into old Fenway Park, complete with old time billboards and the Jimmy Fund seal painted on the "Green Monster." Vincent Scassellati from Kansas City Costume has recreated 1950's uniforms for the team and dressed the women in the same period. Applegate and Lola are in period Broadway with appropriate glitz just shy of tacky. Music director Bruce Barnes gets a solid Tin Pan Alley sound out of his nine-piece ensemble, Lighting by David Neville and sound by John A. Stone take full advantage of the renovated systems. NSMT regulars won't be disappointed, and any new fans drawn in by the Red Sox connection can't help but be impressed.