Damn Yankees Delivers High Spirited Family Fun
Adapted from the novel "The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant" by director George Abbott and novel author Douglas Wallop, with a score by Dick Adler and Jerry Ross, and choreographed by Bob Fosse (a follow-up by Abbott, Adler and Ross, to their year earlier The Pajama Game), the 1955 Tony Award winning Best Musical Damn Yankees is so smooth and felicitous an entertainment that it is difficult to realize how risky and audacious an idea it was to combine baseball and Faust in a musical comedy. When the initial print ads featuring a photograph of Gwen Verdon in a baseball uniform brought slow advance sales, that photo was successfully replaced with one of Verdon in tights.
Damn Yankees takes us back to those glory days when the New York Yankees were perennially a championship team. "Those damn Yankees, why can't we beat 'em," sings middle-aged real estate salesman Joe Boyd as he despairingly turns off his television set after watching his beloved Washington Senators lose another game to the Yankees who are on the road to another inevitable American League championship. When Joe says he would even sell his soul in order for the Senators to win the pennant, the Devilin the form of the suave and dapper Mr. Applegatematerializes and offers to turn Joe into a young and powerful slugger whose play will enable the Senators to win both the pennant and the World Series. In exchange for Joe's soul, Applegate transforms him into 22-year-old Joe Hardy.
The delightful high points among the engaging panoply of characters and events in the Paper Mill Damn Yankees include:
- Nancy Anderson as skeptical reporter Gloria Thorpe joyfully singing and dancing her way through "Shoeless Joe From Hannibal, Mo" (her invented moniker for Joe Hardy), with the inestimable aid of the male dance ensemble and the lively and witty choreography of Denis Jones. Anderson's delightfully bubbly personality and impressive acrobatic dancing draws the evening's biggest hand, and leaves us wanting to see more of her.
- reliable veteran Howard McGillin as Applegate slowly building the sly, subtle humor of the role to its crescendo in what turns out to be this production's delightful eleven o'clock number, "Those Were the Good Old Days." It is the evening's star turn and McGillin delightfully hits it out of the park.
- the thrilling musicality and emotional strength of the scene in which the young Joe tries to assure the grieving Meg that her Joe is "Near To You" and will surely return ("If he's in your heart/ Really in your heart/ How near to you/ Can he get"). Christopher Charles Wood's performance as Joe Hardy, strongly and stirringly sung throughout, reaches its apogee here, where his voice is perfectly matched with the beautiful and lush tones of Patti Cohenour (Meg).
- Ray DeMattis as Senators manager Van Buren rallying his disheartened team as he perfectly captures every note and intonation of the rousing "(You Gotta Have) Heart," blending them together in so smooth an arc that it sounds as if "Heart" had been expressly written for his instrument. Of course, DeMattis could not do it alone, and he receives exemplary assistance from the enthusiastic crew of Washington Senators led by Ryan Steer, Mike Cannon, Steve Czarnecki and Vaden Thurgood. The Senators players get to royally entertain us later on with the delightfully comic "The Game."
- Chryssie Whitehead, who plays Lola the seductive witch brought on by Applegate to make Joe forget his wife Meg, bringing high-stepping verve to "Who's Got the Pain (When They Do the Mambo)?" and, with Christopher Charles Wood, "Two Lost Souls." The cool and sophisticated Whitehead does seem miscast in the role of the adorably goofy Lola.
- the sharpness and precision of the direction of Mark Hoebee. It is exemplified by the sleight of hand, pinpoint staging of Joe Boyd's transformation into Joe Hardy.
- the spritely choreography of Denis Jones, repeatedly sparkling throughout the production. (If all goes according to plan next year at about this time we will see his work in the Broadway production of Honeymoon in Vegas.)
The light, cut-out scenery has been well and pleasingly designed by Rob Bissinger. Alejo Vietti's costumes nicely reflect the era. The 1955 musical is appropriately set in 1959. When Damn Yankees originally opened, it was set "in the future." The structural alterations that were made for the 1994 Broadway revival have not been employed here, and the original structure has been restored. To me, new orchestrations by Bruce Monroe for a sixteen-piece orchestra sound closer to Don Walker's originals than to the flashy 1994 Douglas Besterman ones.
There is even more to enjoy than I have specifically mentioned as the entire cast and ensemble bring talent and enthusiasm to the ebullient tunes, lively book and spirited choreography of Damn Yankees.
Damn Yankees continues performances (Evenings: Wednesday, Thursday 7:30 pm/Friday, Saturday 8 pm / Sunday 7 pm; Matinees Thursday, Saturday, Sunday 1:30 pm) through April 1, 2012, at the Paper Mill Playhouse, 3 Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ 07041. Box Office: 973-376-4343; online: www.papermill.org.
Damn Yankees Lyrics and Music by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross; Book by George Abbott and Douglas Wallop; choreographed by Denis Jones; directed by Mark S. Hoebee