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Damn Yankees

Director Molly Smith's production of this classic musical is a grand slam for the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. logo
Brad Oscar and company in Damn Yankees
(Photo © Scott Suchman)
The 1994 Broadway revival of Damn Yankees was a rare misstep for director Jack O'Brien: The original text of the classic show was revised far more than was necessary in a misguided effort to appeal to present-day sensibilities and, parenthetically, to turn the property into more of a vehicle for Victor Garber in the role of Mr. Applegate (i.e., Satan). Also, the show co-starred Bebe Neuwirth, a prodigiously talented dancer who possesses none of the humor and innate warmth that's essential for the role of Lola. So it's happy news that another great director, Molly Smith, has done a much better job with this classic musical in a grand-slam production at the Arena Stage, of which company she is the artistic director.

Smith's triumph with Damn Yankees is due largely to the fact that she trusted the book (by George Abbott and Douglas Wallop, based on Wallop's novel The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant) and score (by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross), rather than hiring minions to rewrite, revamp, and re-orchestrate under the misapprehension that the show in its original form wouldn't appeal to modern audiences because it's "dated." Excuse me, but this musical was written in the mid-1950s, when its action takes place -- so isn't "dated" just what we want it to be? For anyone to object to the show because the marital relationship it depicts is not quite politically correct by current standards, or for any number of other reasons, seems pointless. This is a period piece, and it's all the more charming for that reason. (Of course, some of the material is timeless; the audience really eats it up when one of the characters responds to an aggressive cop with the line, "Take your hands off me, you Republican!")

Damn Yankees tells the tale of middle-aged baseball fan Joe Boyd, who sells his soul to the dapper, business-suited Mr. Applegate (presumably, no relation to Christina!) in exchange for having his youth restored and being given the athletic prowess necessary to lead his beloved Washington Senators to victory in the pennant race. Of course, this is a variation on the Faust legend -- the main difference being that, in Damn Yankees, Joe ultimately manages to escape Satan's clutches. Rejuvenated as the strong, young "Joe Hardy," Boyd does exactly what he wanted to do for the Senators. But, even at the height of his fame, he yearns to return to his wife, Meg -- although Applegate employs the sexy vamp Lola to try to seduce the kid.

This show is famous as the only successful Broadway musical about baseball, yet it's not essentially about baseball at all. Rather, it's a mid-century fable about a man who realizes that married life with the woman he loves is more important than casual sex, money, power, and youth. (Tellingly, the part of Lola as originally conceived was quite small and was only beefed up to better showcase the amazing Gwen Verdon, who created the role on Broadway and went on to play it in the film version.) At Arena Stage, Kay Walbye gives a definitive performance as Meg, clearly communicating the woman's loneliness as well as her steadfast faith in her wandering husband; and Lawrence Redmond is wonderfully warm in his few brief scenes as Joe Boyd. One of the few wise moves of the Broadway revival was to turn the Act II ballad "Near to You," originally a duet for Meg and young Joe, into a trio, with the spectral figure of old Joe singing the third part. This idea has been borrowed by Smith, and the number turns out to be one of the production's emotional highlights.

Matt Bogart and Meg Gillentine in Damn Yankees
(Photo © Scott Suchman)
Otherwise, the changes and cuts in the script and score are small and judicious. Some questionable lyrics in Applegate's Act II vaudeville turn "Those Were The Good Old Days" have been excised -- e.g., "I see Indians draggin' an empty covered wagon," "I see cannibals munchin' a missionary luncheon" -- but this is no great loss, since the song contains lots of other good jokes. Most impressively, Smith has found a way to rework the Act I specialty dance number "Who's Got the Pain?" into the surrounding scene in such a way that it no longer seems a non-sequitur. The bulk of the show is performed almost exactly as written, with only a few minor nips and tucks. (I did miss a particular joke that was cut for some reason -- the one where a Senators fan asks Applegate "Are you anybody?" and he replies, "Not a soul." Rim shot!)

Given Molly Smith's experience, there is probably no director more adept at staging a show "in the round." The mainstage at Arena is large, but because the audience is seated on all four sides of the action, the venue has an intimate feel. (The orchestra is placed below the stage, with only the conductor's head visible.) Smith's staging of Damn Yankees is unfailingly deft, and she is aided greatly by Baayork Lee, whose choreography is as terrific as her direction of other shows at other theaters was inept. The production gets off to a great start in the "Six Months Out of Every Year" number with a bunch of baseball nuts wheeling TV's around the stage on carts, oblivious to their neglected wives. Set designer Rachel Hauck provides just enough set pieces to establish the locales of the various scenes. As is always the case at Arena Stage, extremely skillful lighting -- by John Ambrosone in this case -- goes a long way toward compensating for the lack of conventional scenery. So do the spiffy '50s costumes by Martin Pakledinaz.

Brad Oscar gives a masterful performance as Applegate; he's funny, charming, and sly by turns, as required. What he also brings to the role is something that other Applegates have lacked: an underlying sense of menace that's important for the show to work properly. Oscar is a delight when breezing through "Those Were the Good Old Days" with a bevy of devilishly sexy chorines (a smart addition to the number), but he's truly scary in his threats against a defiant Joe. Just as fabulous is Meg Gillentine as the devil's henchwoman, Lola. According to her program bio, Gillentine has only one other major role to her credit -- Gladys in The Pajama Game at Baltimore Center Stage -- but her résumé should burgeon in the wake of this tour-de-force. Her singing is highly attractive, her dancing scintillating, and her comic timing impeccable. (God forgive me, but I actually found her funnier than Gwen Verdon in the movie!)

(l-r) Parker Esse, Michael S. Goddard, John Leslie Wolfe,
Steven Cupo, Diego Prieto, Philip Michael Baskerville,
Kevin M. Burrows, and Stephen Gregory Smith
in Damn Yankees
(Photo © Scott Suchman)
Gillentine also has great chemistry with the gorgeous-to-look-at Joe Hardy of Matt Bogart. Young Joe can come across as cocky and self-involved if not well played, but Bogart keeps him sympathetic throughout, clearly in love with the wife he has temporarily left behind and therefore able to resist Lola's advances. Bogart does exhibit some vocal strain on high notes, but he has a lovely sound in his middle and lower registers, which is where most of the part lies. He's highly persuasive in "A Man Doesn't Know" and harmonizes beautifully with Gillentine in "Two Lost Souls," here restored as a Lola-Joe number rather than Joe being replaced by Applegate, as was so foolishly done in the Broadway revival.

Michael L. Forrest a standout in the role of Van Buren, the Senators' coach. As the pushy sportswriter Gloria Thorpe, Cindy Marchionda does a fine job of leading the production number "Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, Mo." Rayanne Gonzales and Lynn McNutt are amusing as Meg's friends Sister and Doris. Steven Cupo as Smokey, Diego Prieto as Vernon, John Leslie Wolfe as Sohovik, and the other triple-threats who play the Senators are funny, endearing, and bursting with energy, especially in "(You Gotta Have) Heart." Music director George Fulginiti-Shakar leads a full-sounding 13-piece orchestra through Don Walker's original orchestrations, only slightly reduced and modified.

Much is being made of the fact that Arena is presenting Damn Yankees partly to celebrate the return of professional baseball to D.C. for the first time in many years with the formation of the Nationals. Smith's production certainly acknowledges and capitalizes on baseball fever: a local celebrity is chosen to "throw out the first ball" at the start of the show, audience members seated in the front row are enlisted to hold up lettered placards reading "Go, Joe, Go," and different groups of elementary school students are recruited for each performance to sing the Act II reprise of "Heart." All of this adds tremendously to the fun of a first-rate staging of Damn Yankees that leaves the Broadway revival in the dust.

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