Thursday, June 23, 2005

(You Gotta Have) Heart!

My friend, Tim Hulsey, reminds me that tonight was the opening of Damn Yankees at the Heritage Repertory Theatre in Charlottesville. (HRT is the summer stock offering of the University of Virginia's Department of Drama.) Tim plans to see the show tomorrow night, and I hope to catch it next week.

Since 1971, with the departure of the Senators from Washington to Texas, Damn Yankees has seemed even more of a fantasy than its plot elements would suggest. Who could have imagined that in the summer of 2005, there would actually be a major league team in Washington -- the Nationals now, not the Senators -- conspiring to use eminent domain to displace numerous homes and businesses in Southwest D.C. in order to build a stadium on the backs of hardworking taxpayers, looting the public purse to the benefit of millionaire team owners and multimillionaire baseball players!

Anyway, let me get off my soapbox and back into the batter's box, so to speak.

Back in 1996, I was fortunate enough to see show-biz legend Jerry Lewis play the lead in a road company of the 1994 Broadway revival of Damn Yankees at the Kennedy Center in Washington. Here is my review of that production, which appeared originally in the Metro Herald in December 1996:

Damn Yankees: Darn Good Fun!
Rick Sincere
Metro Herald Entertainment Editor

"First in war, first in peace -- and last in the American league!" That's how Washingtonians of a certain age remember their beloved, if hapless, Washington Senators. Though never so clumsy as, say, the 1962 New York Mets, during the 1950s the Senators struggled simply to keep out of eighth place -- the bottom of the standings.

At the same time, the New York Yankees were winners all the way, taking the pennant each year of the decade except 1954 (when the Cleveland Indians took it) and 1959 (when the Chicago White Sox won the flag). So it is no mystery why Washington area baseball fans would have been constantly muttering "damn Yankees!" at their TV and radio sets after a ball game.

This it was that Maryland journalist Douglass Wallop wrote a best-selling novel in 1955 called The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant, which was turned into a hit musical, Damn Yankees, that same year, co-written and directed by the legendary George Abbott, with music and lyrics by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross. Starring the incomparable Gwen Verdon as Lola and the devilish Ray Walston as Applegate, the play was turned into a movie (with the same stars, plus Tab Hunter) in 1958.

Forty years later, Broadway revived Damn Yankees, this time putting Jerry Lewis on the boards as Applegate. Though Lewis has been performing since the age of five (he is now 69), spreading his talents through nightclubs, radio, movies, and television, Damn Yankees is his first Broadway appearance. Now he is appearing in the Kennedy Center Opera House.

Slightly rewritten for a late-20th-century audience, the basic plot remains the same. Loosely based on the Faust legend, Damn Yankees tells the story of Joe Boyd, a 60-something real estate agent who acclaims he "would sell his soul" to give the Senators a slugger who can win them games. Instantly, Applegate (the Devil) appears and offers to take Joe up on the deal, turning him into 22-year-old Joe Hardy, a sensation with a bat (and he can field, too). Joe, taking a leaf from his real estate book, insists upon an "escape clause" -- if he quits by 9:00 p.m. on September 24 (the night before the last game of the season), he can keep his soul and return to his wife. Reluctantly, Applegate agrees. He's never lost a deal in thousands of years, after all.

Joe Hardy (played by John-Michael Flate, who bears a passing resemblance to Cal Ripken, Jr.) turns out to be just the shot in the arm that the Senators need. Flagging in seventh place in July, the now-nicknamed "Shoeless Joe" takes them to within one game of winning a free pass to the World Series in September.

Still, Joe yearns for his wife and home. Applegate tries to discourage this by sending his assistant, Lola (Valerie Wright), to seduce him. Lola has never failed before, but she's never met someone like Joe, either.

When Lola fails to divert Joe's attention, Applegate uses the press -- do things never change? -- to besmirch Joe's reputation by accusing him of being a discredited player named Shifty McCoy ("Say it ain't so, Joe!" could be a line from this play.)

Needless to say, Joe rises above these challenges, uses his escape clause, and returns to the warm security of his wife's arms.

Directed by Jack O'Brien, the show moves smoothly and at a fast pace. Rob Marshall, the choreographer, has devised dances that take advantage of his cast's athleticism -- after all, how else would baseball players dance? Like all modern Broadway choreographers, Marshall's work has echoes of Bob Fosse, the innovator who choreographed the original cast of Damn Yankees. He puts it all to good use.

Jerry Lewis is surprisingly low-key in his portrayal of Applegate. Although he does take a few opportunities to mug for the audience, and to use some of the "kid shtick" that made him famous forty-five years ago, his Applegate is a suave, serious businessman. One exception: During the number "Those Were the Good Old Days," Lewis takes center stage to tell a few jokes that would feel at home in a Borscht Belt resort. ("A priest and a rabbi are on an airplane . . . ") The audience, of course, eats it up -- that's what they expect from "the King of Comedy."

As Lola, Valerie Wright defines sexy seductiveness. She oozes, she stretches, she pouts, she purrs. How Joe resists her temptations is the key question of the show.

The male chorus in this show deserves special congratulations. Originally written as a much smaller part -- mostly as background singers -- O'Brien and Marshall have pulled out all the stops for these singing and dancing baseball players. Special mention goes to Ned Hannah as Ozzie, who lights up the stage whenever he appears.

A delightful feature of this production of Damn Yankees is the presence of Mel Allen, one of the greatest sportscasters of all time, as the "Stadium Voice." Although his voice is only on tape, hearing it was terrific, if only for a brief moment.

The sets and costumes successfully evoke the ‘50s, using the shapes and colors that we associate with that era. Not mere copies of old furnishings or clothing, the designers provide an aura of the time -- much as the designers of the recent revival of How to Succeed in Business evoked the early 1960s.

Damn Yankees is fun for all ages. The audience on December 17, at least, included adults who could have seen the original production, children accompanied by their parents, and teenagers and college students out on dates. In a way, this show is back home, with references to Griffith Stadium, Georgetown, the U.S. Senate basement, and other local landmarks.

The Kennedy Center's production of Damn Yankees continues through January 12, 1997, in the Opera House.

Watch this space next week for comments on HRT's new production of Damn Yankees.


Sheila said...

I saw that show at the Kennedy Center in 1996 too!! I had rather low expectations of Jerry Lewis (not being a big fan of his) but I was pleasantly surprised by him overall.

Anonymous said...

The show, which I've seen twice (1995 and 1996),was terrific. Of course, I might just be a little brother was in the cast (one of the short Senators). I wish it could be done again, but I'm not sure Jerry would be in shape to do all those performances!