Baseball season is always the right time to mount a production of the beloved musical Damn Yankees. Now, the John W. Engeman Theater in Northport, Long Island is offering a top-drawer version of the 1955 tuner, starring Broadway veterans Andre De Shields as the devilish Mr. Applegate, Felicia Finley as the seductive Lola, and Austin Miller as baseball hot shot Joe Hardy. TheaterMania recently spoke with De Shields and Finley about the production, their lives, and their careers.
THEATERMANIA: What is your earliest memory of yourself as a performer?
ANDRE DE SHIELDS: The instant that I was evicted from my mother’s womb. My first sense of being a person was this image of myself on a stage. As I later learned, my mother’s dream was to be a dancer, and my father craved to be a singer, but 11 children get in the way of those kinds of dreams. I think that when dreams are deferred they have to find an outlet somewhere. They invested all those dreams in child number nine, so I was the lucky one. Whenever I dance I’m dancing with my mother’s feet. Whenever I sing, I’m singing with my father’s voice. Through them from a very early age I had direction, focus, discipline, ambition, tenacity, long-suffering, all the things that keep you steadfast in the industry, that guarantees only two things, and that’s not fame and fortune; it’s rejection and insecurity.
TM: Theater must be a great outlet for you, isn’t it?
AD: Oh, absolutely. When I leave the theater I leave my problems, my worries, my anxiety, my angst in a puddle of sweat on the stage. I don’t walk out, I float out. What other profession is there where you get to play out or act out all of your nightmares so you don’t have to carry them around as haunting ghosts?
TM: So many great actors have played Applegate over the years. How are you bringing your own stamp to this production?
AD: There is an allure and an intoxication about playing villains, and the devil is the archetypical villain. I take into consideration that this character is that individual who most people love to hate, and who is always afforded the opportunity to be not only dastardly but sensual. He’s a slippery fellow. There’s no more fun to have on the stage.
TM: Who is your favorite film or stage devil?
AD: Nosferatu, from the silent film.
TM: In Damn Yankees, the character Joe wants to fulfill his a dream of being a star baseball player so much that he gives up his soul. If you were given the opportunity to go back and do something differently, what would it be?
AD: I would have pursued the performing arts as a recording artist. There are limited opportunities for me to express my musical self on the legitimate stage. I respect the music that is the bedrock of the Broadway musical, but there is an alternate universe, and in that one there is an alternate songbook of rhythm and blues.
THEATERMANIA: How did you get from New Orleans, where you grew up, to starring in Broadway musicals?
FELICIA FINLEY: Growing up in New Orleans really opened my eyes to the arts. Ellis Marsalis had seven boys (including Branford and Wynton), and I went to high school with them and Harry Connick, Jr. Ellis taught at the school, which was the kind of atmosphere where they begged you not to go to college because it would ruin you. It was more like a basic training for the arts. Anyway, I was a dancer with the New Orleans City Ballet, but I only sang in church and in the shower. So I went to L.A. to be a dancer. But one day, my friend Simone Kelly encouraged me to go with her to the audition for the 25th anniversary of Jesus Christ Superstar and I booked it. I had never done a musical in my life, but I was ready to leave L.A. I didn’t plan on doing Broadway in a million years. I actually wanted to eventually become a judge or a lawyer, and I got accepted to law school. And then I ended up getting the Broadway show Smokey Joe’s Café.
TM: What do you enjoy most about working in regional theater?
FF: You have more of an opportunity to meet the people in the town. I love how in Northport, they’ve made this beautiful theater such a focal point of their lives. It’s comparable to the Broadway experience, but you’re getting the backdrop of water, and you don’t have taxis running you over and you don’t have tourists knocking you down.
TM: How do you overcome the challenge of making your Lola different from all other Lolas, especially its originator, Gwen Verdon?
FF: Bob Fosse [the show’s original choreographer] brought this sexual aspect to the stage that was forbidden back then. So I just go from the text, but I also have a little bit more freedom than other people did years ago. It’s almost voyeuristic — the audience can see a little bit more sex now — but not too much. You want to feel a little uncomfortable with Lola. Also, there’s so much comedy with Lola, and I don’t think it has been excavated as much in other productions. She’s goofy sexy.
TM: If the song “Whatever Lola Wants” was actually called “Whatever Felicia Wants,” what would the song be about?
FF: My husband. I also love rescuing animals. I want to adopt pit bulls. My husband is always like “No, no more animals.” It’s like a farm in the house.
TM: What would people be most surprised to learn about you?
FF: I’m a science buff, specifically quantum physics. My favorite people in history are Frederick Douglass and Neil Armstrong. And I can cook like nobody’s business.