Monday, June 28, 2004

Damn Yankees

One of the more recognizable songs in the Richard Adler/Jerry Ross musical, Damn Yankees, ending the current Davis Musical Theatre season at the Varsity, is “Heart.” We’ve all heard the lyrics:

You’ve gotta have heart
All you really need is heart...

DMTC patrons will not be disappointed in Damn Yankees. It’s designed to be fun from the moment one enters the Varsity Theatre, with bios on the wall done in the style of baseball cards, and a vendor wandering around hocking raffle tickets as if they were peanuts and...well, I won't give it away, but let's say that the opening of the show--before the lights come up--is "classic.".
It’s a show with lots of heart. One would also wish for a bit more energy.

Director Steve Isaacson has created a good looking musical, with interesting dance numbers by choreographer Stephanie Skewes, all of which are executed well enough, but the show needs a bit more punch to make it sparkle.

There is a wide range of ability among the principals on stage, ranging from adequate to quite good. Some performers had problems staying on pitch opening night. Still, this is a show on which a lot of care has obviously been lavished, a lot of work has gone into it, and one can’t fault the earnestness of the result.

Damn Yankees is another version of the Mephistopheles story, it’s The Devil and Daniel Webster meet in the dugout. Joe Boyd (Billy Trainer) is a middle-aged man who has been an avid fan of the Washington Senators all of his life. His long suffering wife Meg (Gayle Wakefield) is resigned to losing her husband to the television “Six Months out of Every Year.” It is Joe’s fervent wish for the Senators to beat the “damn Yankees.” It is, he says to himself, something he’d sell his soul to see happen.

Enter "Mr. Applegate," (Mike McElroy) with an offer he can't refuse--The Senators will not only have a winning season, but, in exchange for his soul, Boyd can fulfill his childhood dream and be the player who helps them to victory. Boyd agrees, but insists on an escape clause in case he changes his mind. The predictable plot is set in motion.

For a production of Damn Yankees to really soar, one must have a terrific Mr. Applegate, the role made famous on both stage and screen by Ray Walston. Applegate should steal the show, but while McElroy is definitely a competent actor, he doesn’t steal anything. His signature song “Those Were the Good Old Days” is such a traditional audience pleaser that encores are written into the script. But McElroy had to encourage the audience to continue the polite applause, which subsided before he could start his first of two un-requested encores.

Tevye Ditter, as the strapping young Joe Hardy, is one of those in the “quite good” category. When he first appears on stage, confused about what has happened to cause his transformation, he is a commanding presence with a powerful voice and he holds the stage in each of his appearances. His love for his wife, to whom he cannot reveal his true identity (“A Man Doesn’t Know”) is poignant.

Another in the “quite good” category is Erin Jones, as Gloria Thorpe, the reporter who gives Joe his nickname of “Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, MO” and vows to make him a household name. Her role is small, but she is fun to watch.

J.D. Diefenbacher, who did a fine job as Joe in Showboat, is well suited to play the Senators’ Coach Benny Van Buren and he does a good job of it. It is he who encourages the team members to have “Heart” in one of the more memorable numbers of the show.

Megan Soto is the sexy vamp, Lola, whose assistance is enlisted by Mr. Applegate to seduce Joe. Her famous “Whatever Lola Wants” was fine, but again, one would have preferred a bit more “oomph” to make it sizzle. Her seduction of Joe is unsuccessful--and whatever Lola wants, Lola doesn’t get.

Others in the cast include Jan Isaacson as sister and Dannette Bell Vassar as Doris, two middle aged Senators fans; Ryan Adame (Rocky), Arthur Vassar (Smokey), and Chris Baker (Sohovik) with a reprise by Billy Trainor as the Baseball commissioner.

The DMTC orchestra and the performers were sometimes in disagreement about the specific keys of certain songs, but one assumes that this problem will be solved next season when DMTC moves into its new theatre and the orchestra will have its own pit rather than a platform off to the side of the stage.

This Damn Yankees will not top the list of “Best DMTC productions ever,” but there is a lot to like--how can you miss with a show about romance, love, commitment, dreams, fantasies and America's favorite pastime? One cannot deny that the production has “miles and miles and miles of heart.”

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