Regional Reviews: Florida - West Coast
Based on the Faust legend, Damn Yankees, music and lyrics by Jerry Ross and Richard Adler, book by George Abbott, was a big hit on Broadway in 1955, launching the careers of Gwen Verdon in the role of Lola and Bob Fosse as choreographer. Since then it continues to be regularly seen on stages all over the United States and the world.
Joe Boyd loves his home team, transported to the Pittsburgh Pirates for this production, but they can't seem to do much right as the New York Yankees dominate major league baseball. When he says he would sell his soul for one long-ball hitter for his team, well guess who shows up? The devil in the form of Mr. Applegate. He has a beautiful assistant, Lola, but the younger, sleeker Joe, new last name Hardy, loves the wife he left behind, Meg. A bunch of other colorful characters and some plot machinations in the Abbot rat-a-tat-tat style and some great songs, two of which have become standards, and it's musical comedy heaven.
Director Cory Boyas has ties to Gwen Verdon and the Fosse style via work on the musical Fosse that celebrated his career oeuvre. Boyas uses that experience to replicate much of Fosse's choreography as duplicated in the movie. Joey Panek went from stage to the world of local TV, as senior producer and co-host for ABC7's "Suncoast View," and his performance as Joe Hardy reminds me of how great a loss that has been to local stages. The last time I saw him on stage was in 2015, opposite the powerhouse scene stealer Matt McGee, yet Joey managed to more than hold his own. Here he convinces us that he is 10 years younger than his actual age with a mega-watt smile, fabulous singing, and energy. When Joe Hardy excitedly runs to his beloved team, hoping for a tryout, he really runs!
Katherine Parks has all the right stuff for Lola: she is a statuesque beauty and a fine singer and dancer. When in "A Little Brains, a Little Talent" she sings, "and this queen has her aces, in all the right places," she certainly does. Kevin Steele is Applegate, and it's a shame he only gets one song, albeit the 11 o'clock number, "Those Were the Good Old Days." Do I have to tell you he hits it out of the park, including an encore verse I don't believe I've ever heard before?
Ric Stroup is Joe Boyd, opposite Ellen Kleinschmidt as wife Meg. Ms. Kleinschmidt is a regular on this and other local stages, but this is one of her best outings, as the part is sympathetic and fits her like a glove. Dave Springer, new to area stages as team manager Van Buren leads one of the best loved songs in the score, "Heart." It is an old fashioned kind of anthem and without the proper energy can fall flat, but this former theater teacher gives lessons on how to do it. High schooler Ronni Belser leads a rousing "Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, Mo." She wants to pursue a career in musical theater and shows she has the chops for it.
Victoria Gross is Sister and Sami Blouin her sister Doris, two friends of Meg who figure in the plot. Ms. Gross has a tough act to follow, as the part was played in the original Broadway cast by Jean Stapleton, later forever beloved as Edith Bunker, and can be heard loud and clear on the cast album. The actors playing the baseball players are energetic, and they sing and dance with poise. Tanner Fults as Rocky and Tahj Porter as Smokey figure more prominently with solos in "The Game." I've been very pleased to see both grow into accomplished performers. Mr. Fults really dazzles dancing opposite Ms. Parks in "Who's Got the Pain?," which is no mean feat since its easy to see Bob Fosse's performance opposite his wife, Verdon, from the movie.
Other than changing Joe's hometown team, Cory Boyas leaves the show firmly in the world of the 1950s, a good idea since trying to bring the time frame forward would require changes that would risk the production becoming a mess. All the technical aspects, set design inspired by Marc Lalosh, costumes by Donna Riggs, and lighting by Patrick Bedell, stay harmonious with that vision.
Music director Emily Croome, who has ties to this area via family, returns from New York City to lead this musically lively show. She is assisted by Heather Weiskerger, who was rehearsal pianist.
This production of Damn Yankees shows the best in community theater: a good musical featuring local talent, offering audiences an evening or afternoon of great entertainment.
Damn Yankees runs through March 8, 2020, at Manatee Center for the Performing Arts, 502 3rd Ave W., Bradenton FL. For tickets and information, call 941-748-0111 or visit manateeplayers.com.