Damn Yankees Radiates Heart and Joy
Also see David's review of Clybourne Park
Neither done to death nor almost forgotten, the exuberant 1955 musical Damn Yankees resurfaces every few years and confirms that it is an entertainment to be reckoned with, and director Mark S. Hoebee and choreographer Denis Jones and the rest of the Team 5th Avenue (who co-produced with The Paper Mill Playhouse) just about propel the show out of the ballpark.
Nancy Anderson, center, and Company
The book by venerable Broadway legend George Abbott and novelist Douglass Wallop (based on Wallop's comic novel "The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant") stands up better than you might expect, and plays far better than the rejiggered 1990s Broadway revival version did, telling the Faustian influenced tale of a paunchy middle-aged baseball fan who becomes a star baseball player thanks to a carefully wrought deal with the Devil. But, as with most musicals of the Golden Age, the score is the thing, and in addition to the durable "You Gotta Have Heart" and the undying "Whatever Lola Wants" there isn't really a dud in the song list, which puts it ahead of The Pajama Game, the only other score by the sadly short-lived team of Richard Adler and Jerry Ross (Ross died young, shortly after Damn Yankees began a Tony-winning three-season run). Some of the songs spring naturally from the dialogue, especially ballads like "A Man Doesn't Know " and "Near to You", while others are just formula crowd pleasers (the contrived fan club number "Who's Got the Pain?", first written as one more number to showcase first time headliner, Gwen Verdon) but still mighty easy on the ear and definitely smile-provoking.
The talent line-up, a few of whom played the same roles to acclaim at Paper Mill, includes several standouts. Newcomer Christopher Charles Wood has rugged good looks and easygoing all-American boy charm in spades as Joe Hardy, the transformed version of couch potato Washington Senators rooter Joe Boyd (Hugh Hastings, ingratiating in a role that bookends the show). Joe's ever-loving, devotedly long suffering baseball widow wife Meg is sublimely portrayed by the eternally silver-throated Patti Cohenour. Hans Altwies, known locally for his leading man roles in everything but musicals, takes on the comic lead role of Mr. Applegate, the devil in vaudevillian's clothing. He does fairly well, selling his spotlight solo "Those Were the Good Old Days " with aplomb, though a little less mugging would strengthen his performance. Chryssie Whitehead as Applegate's temptress in chief Lola seemed tentative in her first solo, "A Little Brains, A Little Talent", then turned up the heat for a smashing song and dance performance throughout the rest of the show, first in the mock-sultry "Whatever Lola Wants", romping with members of the male ensemble in "Who's Got the Pain?" and especially pleasing in the "Two Lost Souls" eleven o'clock number with Wood.
Versatile Allen Fitzpatrick is an affable and strong-voiced Senators manager leading a well-chosen and diverse male ensemble in "Heart," and the team, headed up by such stalwart talents as Dane Stokinger and Christian Duhamel, get act two rolling with their comic take on "The Game." Making something really special out of her role as the nosy news-hound sports reporter Gloria Thorpe, Nancy Anderson is possibly the most captivating talent among many, especially leading the great production number "Shoeless Joe from Hannibal Mo" with reckless energy and abandon. And even minus their reprise rendering of "Heart" (one of a few cuts that keep the show streamlined) Carol Swarbrick and Julie Briskman land their share of laughs as Meg's zany lady friends Sister and Doris.
Ben Whitely's musical direction is just right and, as usual, the big 5th Avenue orchestra does full justice to the score, which has ear-pleasing yet faithful new orchestrations by Bruce Monroe. Rob Bissinger's scenic designs, especially his perfectly detailed interiors of Joe and Meg's oh-so-fifties house, are terrific, ditto the expert lighting design of Tom Sturge; Alejo Vietti's fabulous fifties costumes are both fun and fanciful.
Damn Yankees runs through May 20, 2012, at the 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 Fifth Ave. downtown Seattle. For tickets call 206-625-1900, or visit www.5thavenue.org).