New York and Connecticut theater reviews and news

New York City Theater

"Damn Yankees"
N.Y. City Center

Forget A-Rod and Madonna. The real baseball sizzle these days is provided by Sean Hayes and Jane Krakowski in the buoyant New York revival of “Damn Yankees.” And let’s not quibble about its occasional shortcomings.

Sure, this is not one of the great musicals. Sure, the current revival has occasional problems. (It seems under-rehearsed.) But once conductor Rob Berman gives the downbeat to that 25-piece orchestra, once the singers sing, dancers dance and actors act, bliss reigns and you find yourself wreathed in smiles when you’re not drenched in tears at the sheer joy of it all.

The 1955 hit (1,019 performances) that made Gwen Verdon a genuine Broadway star and cemented the reputation of Ray Walston may not do the same for those now in their shoes. Yet, with music and lyrics by Jerry Ross and Richard Adler, and a book by George Abbott and Douglas Wallop (from the latter’s novel, “The Day the Yankees Lost the Pennant”), this variation on the Faust legend is good old-fashioned musical comedy fun.

Joe Boyd is a rabid Washington Senators fan, prompting his neglected wife, Meg, to bemoan his obsession. (“Six months out of every year / I might as well be made of stone / Six months out of every year / When I’m with him, I’m alone.”)

Joe would give anything, even sell his soul, to help his beloved team win the pennant. Presto! Enter the Devil in the guise of Mr. Applegate. The deal is sealed, old Joe becomes young Joe Hardy, soon to be a renowned shortstop before having to fulfill his demonic contract.

But an escape clause allows an out. To thwart any slip-up, Applegate brings in his A-one seductress, Lola. Once the ugliest girl in Providence, Rhode Island, Lola follows orders. But she can’t help falling for the big bloke, helping quash the deal.

It’s not Shakespeare and the show barely makes it to home plate in Act Two. More, some numbers are fillers, with little relation to the plot. (Like many shows of that era, there’s an obligatory nightclub scene, here the occasion for “Two Lost Souls,” the evening’s one clunker.)

But exuberance wins out. Who can resist the optimistic “Heart” or the rousing “Shoeless Joe From Hannibal, MO”? This production reaches its heights, however, in the ballads “A Man Doesn’t Know” and “Near to You.” In these duets, young Joe and Meg sense the lives they had when he was her neglectful but loving husband.

Cheyenne Jackson is laid back to the point of disappearance as young Joe. Yet that reticence works well in the scenes with his wife. It helps that Meg is played by Randy Graff with such style and warmth that you miss her when she’s offstage.

The main popular attraction is Hayes as the Devil. From his first entrance, slouched against the proscenium with his hat rakishly down over his forehead, to his last, when he screams about having been cheated, Hayes is a sportive figure. With a charming presence and pleasing voice, he’s also adept at the piano. Remembered, of course, from his role as the flamboyantly gay Jack McFarland in the TV series, “Will and Grace,” Hayes here holds his limp-wrist mostly at bay, only letting the feathers fly when he mocks Krakowski’s “Whatever Lola Wants.”

Krakowski is a bubbly Lola. Looking gorgeous in a blond wig, poured into her costumes, she makes Lola someone who clearly enjoys her role as prime, though vulnerable seductress. She hasn’t quite mastered Bob Fosse’s original choreography of angularity, rolling shoulders and duck walk (as re-created by Mary MacLeod), especially in the mambo “Who’s Got the Pain?” But she brings her own insouciance to the number and the role.

It’s a strong cast, with special mention to Veanne Cox and Kathy Fitzgerald as a pair of rabid fans. John Rando’s direction is uneven, but the evening’s enthusiasm is infectious. And you go out humming. How many musicals can say that these days?

-- David A. Rosenberg
July 17, 2008

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