Like baseball itself, "Damn Yankees" is a rite of spring, an old-fashioned celebration of season, tradition and American values. Steve Tomkins directs an energetic and talented cast to a thoroughly enjoyable, if somewhat uneven, production. While I have reservations about the interpretation of the demonic Applegate and the seductress Lola, David Wilson is solid and appealing as the young hero, Joe Hardy. The ensemble, all those players on the Washington Senators and all the young women in various roles, are terrific. They fill the stage with exuberant energy and joyful movement. Voices in this cast are uniformly strong in every role, the orchestra is smartly conducted by Musical Director Bruce Monroe, production values are excellent and the dance, by Mr. Tomkins, is fun and finished. The dramatic story-line seems a bit unbalanced, but as a pure entertainment the show is satisfying and accomplished.
"Six Months of the Year" is a great opening number. The older Joe is watching baseball on tv while his wife watches him, and then the stage opens to a dozen women watching their husbands watching baseball on tv. It sets the tone with the precision of a perfect double play. Neil Badders has a fine, full voice and immediately establishes a sympathetic character, balanced by the warm and substantial Frances Leah King as his wife, Meg. When Applegate appears in a puff of sulphurous smoke and offers Joe youth and stardom, the temptation is irresistible, and the transformation into the young Joe Hardy makes a soul seem like a small price to pay. From then on we're transported to that uniquely Elysian field called a ballpark.
Applegate is an interesting character, intended to suggest the traditional Devil and his many modern incarnations. Timothy McCuen Piggee is a big, flashy performer with a ton of pizzazz and a great voice. For me, however, Tomkins directs him too broadly and we get flamboyant style but very little sinister power. Rather than a threat to Joe's soul, he seems more of a threat to upstage the rest of the production. It's impressive, but without the serious danger (eternal damnation being pretty serious) it denies much of the bittersweet resolution of Joe's ultimate return to his old life, and to his home.
I have similar problems with Anna Lauris as Lola, although in this case it's less an issue of directorial interpretation than personality type. Ms. Lauris has a terrific voice and is certainly attractive, but for all her enticing costume and provocative movement, it just doesn't all add up to erotic sizzle -- at least not sufficient to truly tempt Joe (young or old) from his true love, Meg. Another key dramatic conflict missed.
Where the show really comes together is during the team numbers like "You've Got To Have Heart" and "The Game", and in the more intimate "Goodbye Old Girl" and "Near to You". In spite of the problem I have with interpretation, the performance of Applegate's "Good Old Days" is a showstopper, and hugely entertaining. The women of the town add plenty of their own style to the "Heart" reprise.
The result, for me, is a dramatic narrative without some key motivation, surrounded by a big, colorful, fun show, nicely performed. Terrific painted sets and drops by Bill Forrester create both period and style, and Deane Middleton's costumes are bright and nicely detailed. Above all, the entire evening is carried along on good feeling, reassuring familiarity and admirable skill. This is a summer show as simple and tasty as a barbecued burger on a paper plate.
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