Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Review of "Damn Yankees" - Goodspeed Opera House

The baseball season has just begun, but the intense rivalry between the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox is already heating up at the Goodspeed Opera House with a reconfigured production of the musical Damn Yankees that features the two clubs.  The team from Fenway replaces the Washington Senators in this version, but librettist Joe DePietro’s retelling, while changing the overall flavor of the production, keeps the main story intact—an impassioned baseball fan (of the Boston Red Sox) makes a deal with the devil in order to thwart the dominance of the New York Yankees and try to win the American League pennant.

Members of the hapless Red Sox from "Damn Yankees." Photo by Diane Sobolewski.
The show is a welcome relief after such a lackluster New York musical season.  Damn Yankees features a great score, outstanding choreography, and a squad of highly talented comedic actors.  The story revolves around a middle-aged Red Sox fan, Joe Boyd, who declares he would sell his soul if his team could just get a long-ball hitter.  In a flash the Devil appears, in the guise of a Mr. Applegate, to grant the wish.  The next moment Joe Boyd transforms into Joe Hardy, an earnest, gung ho, strapping young man.  He quickly joins the hapless Red Sox, changing them from cellar dwellers to contenders.  However, as the Bosox race up the standings, Hardy longingly yearns for his old life and the company of his wife.  Applegate, not wanting to lose his promised soul, has a few tricks up his evil-minded sleeve including his sure-fired assistant, the seductress Lola, to woo him to stay.  In the final game of the year, with everything on the line, the Red Sox…well, why spoil the ending?

Damn Yankees, as mentioned above, has much to offer.  The score, by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross (a follow-up to their smash debut, The Pajama Game), consists of one gem after another—“Heart,” “The Game,” “Whatever Lola Wants, Lola Gets,” “Two Lost Souls.”  I might as well list every song in the show.  They are all that good.

David Beach (Applegate), Stephen Mark Lukas (Joe Hardy), and Angel Reda (Lola).  Photo by Diane Sobolewski.
Joe DiPietro has judiciously and seamlessly incorporated Red Sox jargon, references, and lore into the original book by George Abbott and Douglass Wallop without sacrificing its integrity. 

The choreography by Kelli Barclay is smart, creative, and lively.  They include the best dance numbers around—including what is currently on Broadway.  With a large ensemble of brawny, able-bodied men the production numbers are athletic, whimsical, and inventive.  A perfect example is “Shoeless Joe From Hannibal, MO” from Act I.  At one point reporter Gloria Thorpe (Lora Lee Gayer) tries to keep in step with the Red Sox players as, in unison, they initiate a series of convoluted hand signals.  Soon, everyone is in perfect sync as the large-scale routine turns into a rousing dance number with the hand signals at the corps.

The "Shoeless Joe From Hannibal, MO" dance number.  Photo by Diane Sobolewski.
The acting team is marvelous, with the featured actors almost stealing the show.  Stephen Mark Lukas, as the well-built Joe Hardy, has boyish good lucks and, at first, a “gee whiz” quality to his performance.  But as the show progresses he adds a nuanced layer of weariness to the role.  David Beach, looking like the twin of the Mayhem character from the Allstate commercials, is devilishly entertaining as Mr. Applegate.  It is a part where acting histrionics can be applauded.  As Applegate’s tried and true femme fatale, Lola, Angela Reda is a sexy triple threat for her dancing, singing, and acting prowess.  Ron Wisniski is a comic gem as Coach Van Buren.  His facial expressions alone spark howls from the audience.  Lastly, Kristine Zbornik  and Allyce Beasley are irresistibly funny as neighbors Sister and Doris, respectively.  They provide comic bon mots throughout the musical.

Director Daniel Goldstein keeps the pacing of the show moving at a fine clip whether the stage is crowded with the large cast or simply populated by just two actors.  When the plot moves into more somber territory he quickly follows up with a perfectly timed comedic moment.  He also allows his performers leeway in embellishing their roles, which provides more distinctive and finely tuned characters.

Damn Yankees, a homerun of a musical, at the Goodspeed Opera House through June 21st.

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