George Merrick and Shannon Lewisin a publicity photo for Damn Yankees
George Merrick and Shannon Lewis
in a publicity photo for Damn Yankees
It really didn't take all that much tweaking to tailor 1955's Damn Yankees, the beloved Richard Adler-Jerry Ross-George Abbott-Douglass Wallop musical about a particularly rabid Washington Senators fan, to apply to Boston and its beleaguered Red Sox. Change a few place names, throw in a couple of topical references, and presto: You've got an entertaining nod to the longstanding rivalry between Beantown's baseball team and those guys in pinstripes.

The smartest thing that adapter Joe DiPietro (All Shook Up) did in running with North Shore Music Theatre artistic director Jon Kimbell's brainstorm was to retain the show's heart -- and this Faustian fable still has "miles and miles and miles" of that, to quote one of its most famous songs. When you come right down to it, Damn Yankees is a really sweet story. How many men, having been given the opportunity to recapture the vitality of their youth and to achieve the status of major celebrity, would find themselves yearning instead for the cozy comforts of home and the dear "old girl" who embodies them?

Baseball nut Joe Boyd makes a pact with the Devil, a.k.a. Mr. Applegate (played by Jim Walton at North Shore), in order to help his losing team win the pennant. In an instant, the middle-aged Boyd morphs into the hunky young hitter Joe Hardy (George Merrick), and we sit up and take notice. This kid can really sing! In fact, Merrick wallops "Goodbye, Old Girl" and his subsequent solos right out of the park.

Walton loook the part of Applegate but doesn't do much with it. Shannon Lewis is proficient but a bit mechanical in the pivotal role of the temptress Lola during her early scenes -- we're really not supposed to side with Applegate when he says that her methods are "old-fashioned" -- but she warms up once Lola begins to sympathize with Joe. Indeed, their dark-alley duet "Two Lost Souls" has enough heat to steam a Fenway frank. As Meg, the baseball widow resigned to being ignored "Six Months Out of Every Year," Kay Walbye gives a strong performance; whatever she may lack in vocal technique (perhaps the wobble is intentional to signal age), she makes up for in heartfelt emotion. As the older Joe, Richard Pruitt makes a nicely rotund couch potato but has a tendency to bray.

NSMT's theatre-in-the-round easily doubles as a baseball diamond, and Russel Parkman's sets abound in surprise pop-ups; at one-point, an entire locker-room shower surfaces, complete with singing, scrubbing athletes (and a great deal of towel-snapping). Director Barry Ivan's exuberant choreography incorporates all sorts of sportsman-appropriate moves, such as the obligatory crotch adjustments. Costumer Vincent Scassellati has captured the 1950s style in spades, from pedal pushers to shirtwaists, and his glamour get-ups for Lola -- one of which is ingeniously engineered for a peel-away striptease -- are eye-popping..

Even if, like Meg, you're "not much of a baseball fan," there's plenty to savor in this high-spirited romp. Once again, NSMT's nonpareil teamwork pays off in an entertaining night of theater.