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Damn Yankees

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Damn Yankees
Cheyenne Jackson and Jane Krakowski
Photo by Joan Marcus.

"It's a hammy routine, but it always plays!"

That description of one ageless man's machinations in the fields of arson, mayhem, and other general-purpose do-baddery is just as apt when applied to the musical in which it's so slaveringly sung. Damn Yankees has never been much more than a decent show propelled to classic status by those involved in its inaugural production - today, there's no shortage of creaks to accompany its demonstration of workmanlike Golden Age know-how.

Now this almost-but-not-quite-first-rate title is receiving an almost-but-not-quite-first-rate revival at City Center. This second-annual entry in the Encores! Summer Stars series is, in many ways, a vast improvement over last year's anemic Gypsy, looking as opulently appointed as that show did (and, as it's now on Broadway, does) bargain-basement dowdy. But even so, this production highlights the limitations of the Summer Stock on 55th Street format as much as it does those of the musical itself.

If nothing else, director John Rando and musical director Rob Berman show considerable fidelity to the original script and score, allowing the viewer a much clearer vision of the 1955 musical than could be obtained from the heavily rewritten 1994 revival. They've also packed their cast with some of today's finest performing names who, if not on the same level as the original leads (which included Gwen Verdon and Ray Walston, and nearly all of which were preserved in the 1958 film), at least make it easy to identify the work's considerable strengths and serious weaknesses.

Sliding safely into the former category are the songs by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, which count styles ranging from die-hard romanticism to bump-and-grind vampabout to retro vaudeville specialty. Yet like The Pajama Game, the seeming incongruity never jars - it's as if the full spectrum of American music has gathered to pay tribute to the country's National Pastime.

The book, however, is a different story. As written by George Abbott and Douglass Wallop, it's at best functional, a clean if simpleminded adaptation of Wallop's novel The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant. It charts the story of one middle-aged baseball fan, Joe Boyd, who's so obsessed with the Washington Senators beating the Yankees that he sells his soul to The Man Downstairs for the opportunity to become the foundering club's young savior of a long-ball hitter. Renamed Joe Hardy, he revitalizes the Senators and revolutionizes the game, all while spurning the advances of the devilish Applegate's seductress servant Lola in favor of the doting wife he left to make it all happen.

Base-hit jokes are pitched like fastballs, making it into the catcher's glove as often as they don't; sentimentality is as plentiful as peanuts and Cracker Jack; and the story dissolves into nothingness not long after the seventh-inning stretch. Everything works in the most basic of ways, but only the songs sail over the plate with the greatest of ease - nothing of the remainder could be mistaken for a grand slam.

So Damn Yankees is more dependent than most shows on the people assembled to bring it to life. If Rando's candy-coated directorial style is somewhat distancing, and not a tight match for the more tender scenes, it efficiently moves the show from beginning to end. The sets (John Lee Beatty), costumes (William Ivey Long), and lights (Peter Kaczorowski) are colorful and lively adornments that operate well within the show's strictures.

Berman's orchestra has a terrific, brassy sound befitting Don Walker's excellent orchestrations, but must it, like Gypsy's, ape the tired Encores! idea of being onstage? Such an arrangement restricts the room available for the staging and choreography, the latter of which is the Bob Fosse original (recreated by Mary MacLeod), alternately angular and galumphing, sexy and strident, such a heady mix of dirty-kneed masculinity and sinewy femininity that it deserves to fill the stage.

The show also needs stars who can do the same, while transcending the ordinariness of the book and knocking the songs and dances out of the park. Here, most of all, is where Rando's production stumbles.

Damn Yankees
P.J. Benjamin and Sean Hayes
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Megan Lawrence plays saucy sports reporter Gloria Thorpe, who leads the driving first-act "Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, MO," like a chewing tobacco advertisement that's fraying at the edges. Cheyenne Jackson, on leave from Xanadu, unquestionably looks the part of the Herculean Joe Hardy, but his lifeless singing and whiny acting display but a fraction of the attention to detail that's obviously gone into his gym routines.

Sean Hayes brings to Applegate the broad-based comic chops that made him a standout on Will & Grace, and delightfully wrings every necessary drop of petulance. But his awkward suavity fails him during his sole solo, "Those Were the Good Old Days," which lets Hayes impress with his classical piano training, but does so with his facing partway upstage, suggesting that connecting with the audience is not within his fiery arsenal. For the in-one encore, he summons more of the required dastardly energy, but still seems to be playing primarily to TV studio audiences.

Jane Krakowski, by contrast, gives her all to Lola, flaunting the technical skills (of both legs and voice) needed for limb-stretching numbers like "Whatever Lola Wants," "Two Lost Souls," and "Who's Got the Pain?" (the latter a spark-shooting dance duet with Movin' Out veteran John Selya). But she lacks Verdon's gamine vulnerability, which makes her gradual transition from temptress to tame dame on the town considerably less affecting than it should be.

Damn Yankees
Jimmy Ray Bennett, Robert Creighton, Jimmy Smagula, and Michael Mulheren
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Much more enticing are the less-exciting roles. As Joe Boyd and his wife Meg, P.J. Benjamin and Randy Graff bring desperate warmth to their "six months out of every year" romance, with Graff finding an especially touching delicacy in meeting her Joe in a Hardy body. Michael Mulheren has the proper gruff confidence for Senators coach Benny Van Buren, and Jimmy Ray Bennett, Robert Creighton, and Jimmy Smagula are charmingly earthy as reminders of when baseball was played by guys rather than gods (Joe Hardy excepted).

Such men's disappearance within the now heavily commercialized sport, plus the U.S. facing greater demons than the subversion of this cherished institution, has no doubted dulled the show's overall sheen somewhat. But spirit, particularly during the songs, is still there in spades - "You gotta have heart," the Senators sing in one of the show's most famous songs, and Damn Yankees does. But you gotta have a great lineup, too - onstage and off.


Damn Yankees
Through July 27
City Center, West 55th Street, between 6th and 7th Avenues
Tickets at www.nycitycenter.org