In Review: “Damn Yankees”

DamnYankeesOrdway-00

DAMN YANKEES
Book by Douglass Wallop and George Abbott
Music and Lyrics by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross
Based on the novel The Year The Yankees Lost The Pennant by Douglas Wallop

Staring Lawrence Clayton, Thay Floyd, Monte Riegel Wheeler, Tari Kelly, and Ann Morrison
Directed by James A. Rocco and Sharon Sharon Halley
Presented by Ordway Center for the Performing Arts

It almost seems like fate that the Minnesota Twins would get behind a big local production of Damn Yankees. After all, our local baseball team was built on the remnants of the Washington Senators. Of course the real Washington Senators never had a middle-aged fan who strikes a rather Faustian bargain to turn into a superstar player to help his beloved team win (that being said, Harmon Killebrew though…). And while the musical is one of the wittiest musicals ever to come out of the early 1950s (and one of my favorites from that period), The Ordway‘s production manages to swing for the fences and mostly succeeds with a few technical errors and foul balls popping up that, while vexing to the super fan, do not manage to completely derail the game.

The Cast of the Ordway's production of Damn Yankees

The Cast of the Ordway’s production of Damn Yankees

The plot of Damn Yankees (freely adapted from co-librettist Douglass Wallop’s novel The Year The Yankees Lost The Pennant) should be familiar to anyone who knows the story of Faust. Real-estate agent (and long-suffering Washington Senators fan) Joe Boyd (Lawrence Clayton) is watching his beloved team fail. Again. After claiming that he’d sell his soul for a long hitter, he gets the opportunity to do just that with the arrival of the devi… I mean “Mr. Applegate” (Monte Riegel Wheeler). Being a shrewd businessman, Joe manages to extract an escape clause to be able to change back by a certain day, and after saying goodbye to his beloved wife Meg (Ann Morrison) he turns into the young, virile ballplayer Joe Hardy (Thay Floyd) who manages to turn the Senators’ fortunes around. Of course, Mr. Applegate will not be denied Joe’s soul or the misery of Senators’ fans and uses every trick in the book – including sicking his right-hand woman Lola (Tari Kelly) on him – to get it. Hilarity (and heart) ensues.

One of the big complaints I have about musicals from the 1950s is that they often feel like well-oiled machines, but in the case of Damn Yankees, there are good reasons for that. Given that co-librettist George Abbott was one of the most prolific Broadway directors of all time (and directed the original production in 1955), he was very in tune with the fast and funny approach to musical comedy in vogue in the early- and mid- 1950s (he helped invent and refine the concept actually). And to be sure Abbott and Wallop’s book moves at a lightning fast pace; filled to the brim with great jokes that the audience can’t help but laugh at. This wacky but highly intelligent approach is echoed in Richard Adler and Jerry Ross‘ dynamite score; which also makes sense since Abbott, Adler, and Ross were the same team that made The Pajama Game a hit the year before (there’s one more important person from the creative team that also made a big contribution to both of those musicals, but we’ll talk about him in a moment). And while “Whatever Lola Wants” and “(You Gotta Have) Heart” have become standards of the American songbook, Adler and Ross’ score is chock full of great tunes that are packed with hilarious lyrics (Meg’s lament of losing her husband “Six Months Out Of Every Year” to baseball, the Senators’ mantra to think only about “The Game”, etc.). The net result is that the show will work as long as everyone stays out its way. The good news for the Ordway is that co-directors and choreographers James A. Rocco and Sharon Halley have let the material speak for itself for the most part and the production is sharp and fun with only a few quibbles in approach.

Thay Floyd as Joe Hardy, Gary Briggle as the Commissioner, and Kersten Rodau as Gloria Thorpe in the Ordway's production of Damn Yankees

Thay Floyd as Joe Hardy, Gary Briggle as the Commissioner, and Kersten Rodau as Gloria Thorpe in the Ordway’s production of Damn Yankees

Working off of a trimmed version of the original libretto (which feels like the same version that was used for New York City Center’s Encores! production in 2008), Rocco and Halley keep the action moving at a brisk pace. While you could say the set is a little barren, I thought that J Branson’s utilitarian set (featuring a dugout for the band to show off Jeff Rizzo’s amazing music direction and conducting, and an upper railed level for spectating) was a clever way to evoke the ever-present ballpark even when the setting was as mundane as the Boyd’s house. And while I quibbled with the opening video sequence (which featured the cast in a movie credits sequence), Todd F. Edwards’ media design was fun and kitschy; complete with vintage headlines, vintage ads featuring Joe Hardy, and archival footage with some very familiar local media types making cameos.

Of course, with a show like this, you need a cast that can deliver the material and for the most part Rocco and Halley have assembled a great team to bring the show to life. If I have one quibble with Lawrence Clayton’s lovely, nuanced performance as the old Joe Boyd, it’s that his gorgeous singing voice is almost too virile and too strong to contrast with the young Joe (brought to gloriously touching life by Thay Floyd in an absolutely charming performance) and robs the key moment in Act One’s “Goodbye Old Girl” when the men switch roles and muddies the Act Two trio “Near To You” because their voices sound nearly identical. Make no mistake, both Mr. Clayton and Mr. Floyd are spellbinding as the old and young Joe respectively, and make it easy to connect the dots between the two versions of the same man. I just would have liked a little more contrast vocally between the two, as the current state of affairs threw the dynamic off.

Tari Kelly as Lola in the Ordway's production of Damn Yankees

Tari Kelly as Lola in the Ordway’s production of Damn Yankees

I also felt that the dynamic was off in Tari Kelly‘s performance as Lola, but that wasn’t necessarily her fault. Make no mistake Ms. Kelly is a lovely stage presence with a winning voice and a sly sense of humor, but I was dismayed that neither she (nor more importantly Mr. Rocco and Ms. Halley) were able to escape the ghost of the iconic singer and dancer Gwen Verdon, whose performance as Lola in the original production is nigh on iconic. Damn Yankees was the first collaboration between Ms. Verdon and her eventual husband, director and choreographer Bob Fosse, and his choreography and her acting would be all the better for it. Both of them won Tony awards for their work in the original production and their landmark marriage/collaboration would create some of the most memorable work on Broadway from the mid-1950s to the 1970s (Sweet Charity and Chicago being just two examples). As I saw Ms. Kelly enter the locker room scene for “Whatever Lola Wants” in her strawberry blonde wig trying to do Fosse’s famous choreography and Verdon’s famous stage business for that number, I truly felt that Rocco and Halley did Ms. Kelly a disservice by forcing her to try and offer up a pale imitation of Verdon’s iconic performance. This feeling was compounded by the staging of Lola’s other big numbers; her Act One mambo “Who’s Got The Pain” was fun but the traditional duet was turned into a group number, while “Two Lost Souls,” usually a show stopping dance number for Lola, Joe, and the ensemble was rendered flatly thanks to some uninspired choreography. I am not laying the blame for this at Ms. Kelly’s feet: Ms. Kelly is an extremely talented actress and Lola is a demanding role that has felled many a good actress over the years (even the great Bebe Neuwirth, who knows her way around a Fosse musical or two, had troubles with the role in the 1994 Broadway revival). But I can ding Mr. Rocco and Ms. Halley for not helping their leading lady find her way through this difficult role.

Tari Kelly and Monte ** *** in the Ordway's production of Damn Yankees

Tari Kelly as Lola and Monte Riegel Wheeler as Mr. Applegate in the Ordway’s production of Damn Yankees

Speaking of actors finding their way through difficult parts, Monte Riegel Wheeler was a bit of a mess as Applegate. I don’t know whether it was on his own end or whether it was encouraged by Rocco and Halley, but Mr. Wheeler’s performance was so campy and so forced that it obliterated the inherent wittiness of the part (and all but steamrolled over the jokes in Applegate’s Act Two number “Those Were The Good Old Days”). Moreover, Mr. Wheeler’s merciless mugging took out any sense of danger in the role and worse took out any sense of consequence of the story.

Allen Fitzpatrick as Van Buren with Randy Schmeling, Dieter Bierbrauer and Reid Harmsen in the Ordway's production of Damn Yankees

Allen Fitzpatrick as Van Buren with Randy Schmeling, Dieter Bierbrauer and Reid Harmsen in the Ordway’s production of Damn Yankees

These quibbles aside, there was some fantastic work from the rest of the cast. Kersten Rodau is glorious as the sharp-tongued reporter Gloria Thorpe (and turns “Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, Mo” into one of the high points of the night). Allen Fitzpatrick is absolutely charming as the team manager Van Buren. And the ensemble is top flight with great turns from Dieter Bierbrauer, Gary Briggle, Mario Esteb, Reid Harmsen, Michelle Myers, Randy Schmeling, and Regina Marie Williams. However, Ann Morrison wins the MVP award in this cast for her luminous performance as Meg. Equally funny, witty, and warm (and with a killer voice that hasn’t aged since her days in the original cast of Merrily We Roll Along), Ms. Morrison is the quiet center of the musical and shows the audience the real stakes that Joe is fighting for. And when she sings with Mr. Boyd in their Act One duet “A Man Doesn’t Know,” the moment turns into a moving showstopper.

Much like any deal with the devil, the Ordway’s production of Damn Yankees has its share of missteps. Don’t get me wrong, there is some genuine talent and heart (and “Heart”) on that stage, and if this is your first time in the Senators’ bullpen, then you’re in for a delicious treat. If, however, you’re like me, you are a longtime fan of the show, then you might be cheering and jeering the show in equal measure. And while I found the show to be successful and satisfying, it wasn’t a complete home run for this musical theatre umpire.

Side Notes

– While I appreciated the idea of having the Boyds be a mixed race couple (Mssrs. Clayton and Floyd are African American), I wish the Ordway didn’t make such a big point about it. Yes, Washington D.C. was one of the few places in America in the 1950s where bi-racial couples were legally recognized, but in this day and age, racially blind casting has become so part of the norm that it really didn’t have an impact on the show. Now if the Ordway really wanted to play on the notions of race and have it be more of an influence, then they would have cast the elder Joe with an older white actor who then turns into the young, virile Mr. Floyd.

– So how can I speak so authoritatively on the original production, you ask? Because of the 1958 Warner Bros. produced film version, which is ridiculously faithful to the original stage production. With the addition of director Stanley Donnen (who co-directed the film with Mr. Abbott) and the substitution of Tab Hunter replacing Stephen Douglass Joe Hardy, the entire original Broadway cast and crew are featured, thus preserving the original performances of Verdon, Ray Walston (the original Mr. Applegate), Russ Brown, Shannon Bolin, Rae Allen, and the great Jean Stapleton. Even better, it has one of the few moments were Verdon and Fosse are dancing together.

The Ordway’s production of Damn Yankees continues through June 28; with performances Tuesday – Saturday at 7:30pm and Saturday and Sunday at 2pm. All performances take place at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, located at 345 Washington Ave in St. Paul. Tickets are $36-110 and can be purchased HERE.

Photo Credits: Ordway Center for the Performing Arts
Video Credits: Warner Bros. Films

Originally Published on 20 June 2015 for l’étoile

Douglass WallopGeorge AbbottGwen VerdonJames A. RoccoJeff RizzoJerry RossLawrence Claytonminnesota twinsMone Riegel WheelerOrdwayOrdway Center For The Performing ArtsRay WalstonRichard AdlerSharon HalleyTari KellyThay FloydTheatreWashington Senators

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