July 12, 2008

"Damn Yankees" Drops the Ball

I love summer and I try to be outside in the warm weather every minute I can. Which is sometimes a problem when you’re a theater lover. Sure, there are outdoor productions like Shakespeare in the Park and Broadway at the Seaport. But more often than not, you’re heading inside a theater just when the temperature seems to be at the height of its shank-of-the-evening glory. And I’m clearly not the only one who feels this way because the exodus at intermissions in the summer tends to be larger than usual and getting people back into their seats a little more difficult. Still, I found it telling when I looked around outside City Center towards the end of Tuesday night’s mid-performance break of the new Encores! production of Damn Yankees and realized that most of the stragglers were the city’s major theater critics.

Eventually an usher came out to shoo us in and we all trooped back to our seats but I suspect that a good number of us might have preferred sitting at one of the outdoor cafés on t
he block or maybe even in the bleachers watching the real Yankees play in their final season in their venerable stadium before moving to a new one next year. As you probably know, the Bronx Bombers don’t actually appear in this 1955 musical; the team it celebrates is the old Washington Senators (now the Minnesota Twins) and its protagonist is Joe Boyd, a middle-aged fan so devoted to them that he offers to sell his soul if the Devil will transform him into a gifted young player who can help the losing team win the pennant over its New York nemesis (click here to read Theatermania columnist Peter Filichia's wonderful interview with a now 91 year-old Shannon Bolin, who played Boyd’s wife Meg in the original production).

Damn Yankees was never a classic musical—the book is barely robust enough to make it to second base—but its score is delightful and its performances were nearly all home runs. Especially Gwen Verdon’s star-clinching turn as Lola, the Devil’s femme fatale helpmate who is charged with distracting the young Joe. The show’s choreographer Bob Fosse, who would later marry Verdon, created sensational numbers custom-made to her distinctive and prodigious talent (click here to see her in action). After Damn Yan
kees was turned into a movie in 1958, with the entire Broadway cast intact except for having Tab Hunter take over the role of young Joe, everyone, including the little-girl me, was vamping around and singing Verdon’s signature song, “Whatever Lola Wants.” Classic or no, the show gives any revival a lot to live up to.

Unlike the staged readings that Encores! usually puts on, the Summer Stars series, now in its second season, is a full sets-and-all affair. The series scored last year with its powerhouse production of Gypsy, which transferred to Broadway and won Tonys for all three of its leads—Patti LuPone, Laura Benanti and Boyd Gaines. So that has given this Damn Yankees revival
another set of expectations to meet. And, alas, all those demands prove too tall an order. By intermission, those of us loitering outside City Center had already seen the show’s biggest numbers—“Heart” (you know, as in, “You gotta have…), “Shoeless Joe From Hannibal, Mo” and, of course, “Whatever Lola Wants” and we knew it wasn’t going to be anywhere near as good as either Gypsy or the original 1955 production.

Which isn’t to say it’s bad. Sean Hayes, the flamboyant Jack from TV’s “Will & Grace” who is
making his New York stage debut as the Devil who uses the pseudonym Mr. Applegate, is a crowd pleaser, although his Satan is more a naughty boy than the diabolical dealmaker of the original’s Ray Walston, whose wry wit would later enliven his own hit sitcom, “My Favorite Martian.” Jane Krakowski, a Tony-winner for the 2003 revival of Nine and now on TV’s “30 Rock,” looks fabulous and gamely tries to master Fosse’s choreography, although even she seems to know that she can’t match Verdon’s virtuosity. Cheyenne Jackson, on furlough from Xanadu, also looks great and is a valiant young Joe. But none of them seem to really get inside their characters and make them their own.

After the show, in between bites of deluxe cheeseburgers at the nearby Brooklyn Diner, my pal Bill suggested that the limited rehearsal period for the three-week run, which ends July 27, might not have given them enough time to develop their performances. And that may be true but, given the same amount of time, Randy Graff managed to find the emotional center of the wife Meg, making her a fully realized person.

My husband K, a pit musician, usually performs in the Encores! orchestra but this time out, he stayed with his steady gig, playing for Gypsy, and so he was even more curious than usual to hear what I’d thought of the show when I got home. “Ah,” he said, after I described it, “sounds like summer stock.” And that’s the perfect description. This production of Damn Yankees is light entertainment for a summer night, the equivalent of watching a Triple-A-Baseball game. Except, of course, that with the game, you'd get to spend the evening outside.

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