In the wake of all those heavy British pseudo-operas and intricate Sondheim shows, the revival of the 1955 musical "Damn Yankees" comes as a jolt that seems alternately ridiculous and refreshing.
Can a musical really be this fresh-faced - with so many almost corny jokes and emotions, a plot whose key element is a mambo number at a benefit, and numerous conversational references to Betty Crocker, Roto-Rooter and Listerine? And am I really smiling?
"Yankees" - about making a deal with the devil to guarantee a hellishly good baseball season - harks back to a bright, jazzy style of musical that , in its own saucy way, celebrates small towns, hummable songs and good old romantic values triumphing over both heroism and Satan. While this production adds jokes about Evita and J. Edgar Hoover, the direction by Jack O'Brien serves the show up fairly straight, as a piece of quaint Americana right out of the oven. Only recent figure-skating scandal that suggested just how far someone would go to win a sports event adds real topical relevance.
Based on the aptly named Douglass Wallop novel "The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant," the show has disgruntled Washington Senators fan Joe Boyd (Dennis Kelly) griping that he'd sell his soul to have the Senators finally cream the Yankees - and then getting to do exactly that.
The buyer is Mr. Applegate (Victor Garber), a slick, sardonic devil who enters from below, having come from just designing an Edsel. He promptly makes the neighbors' cat explode, just for show. And then, according to plan, he proceeds to transform Boyd into young Joe Hardy (the likable Jarrod Emick), the Senators' Faustian salvation and media phenom.
Joe's a hero, but begins to miss the home team (his wife), at which point "Yankees" meanders uneasily between hijinks and sentiment. But when those two bases meet, like in the anthem "Heart," the pizzazz is driven home harder and livelier than any ball.
To compensate for the slower innings, the production layers on hoopla like Redi-Whip on a big Jell-o mold. Rob Marshall's choreography is appropriately vigorous and Douglas W. Schmidt's sets wittily evoke the period while winking at it, with elaborately kitschy parts that literally ignite on cue.
As for Garber and Bebe Neuwirth (of "Cheers" fame), who plays his vavoom-y but vulnerable assistant, they gamely try to ignore the fact that the '58 movie preserves Ray Walston and Gwen Verdon's definitive performances for all time. Neuwirth generally comes off more sensible than explosive, but has appeal, especially on her vampy charade, "Whatever Lola Wants" (her high heels encroach on young Joe's pantless body in ways that aren't quaint at all). And, though his shtick is sometimes larger than any pitchfork, Garber garners huge laughs with his inflamed reactions and acid quips.
"I think I'd like to throw up," he winces at one cheery point in the story. But don't; while the seams on the baseball are definitely showing, this sunny treatise on selling one's soul still earns its heart.
You've gotta have art - all you really need is art! Few Broadway musicals have been quite so artful, almost sneakily artful, as "Damn Yankees," which last night hit another home run at the Marquis Theater.
Oddly enough, until this return match starring Bebe Neuwirth and Victor Garber and umpired by Jack O'Brien, this 1955 tuner commemorating the national pastime has not been around all that much.
It's been stuck in summer stock for years, and 1,001 amateur Lolas have demonstrated what they need in defining just what they want. But this, so far as I can recall, is its first major Broadway revival.
You know it may be the music that first sells musicals, but it is probably the book that pickles them for posterity. That's where the art is; so far as longevity is concerned, a good story is worth a dozen songs.
The score by Richard Adler and the late Jerry Ross has a brassy, sassy, snappy Broadway belt to it - they don't write Broadway with such confidence these days - and shows off a flurry of grandstand hits.
Yet for all the joy of the score, what lifts the show up is the book George Abbot, the original director, and Douglass Wallop (an apt name) carved from Wallop's novel, "The Last Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant."
This not only trades in that special boys-of-summer baseball mythology which has become part of our literary tradition (although remember the original show ran for nearly three years in London where baseball just isn't cricket!) but also its brilliant revamping of the Faust theme, placing it - unexpectedly - in the framework of middle-class suburban marriage.
A paunchy baseball fan sells his soul - with an escape clause - to the Devil, to become the world's greatest baseball player, and help the Washington Senators beat the New York Yankees. This was in the sunshine days of Mantle, Berra, Martin & Co. when the Yankees were a team to whip!
O'Brien has reworked the book slightly - a different ending, where Lola no longer reverts to decrepitude, a few updates (references, for example, to Edgar Hoover that might have once brought prison sentences), and more emphasis on the Devil, who is now, with Garber taking on the old Ray Walston assignment, the star of the show.
O'Brien's production originated at his own Old Globe Theater, San Diego, and despite the vestigial design (Douglas W. Schmidt's settings, David C. Woolard's costumes) at style, awash in '50s kitsch, it looks more regional-spartan than Broadway-plush.
But the staging is crisp, and Rob Marshall's lively choreography, in its ball-game antics and mambo jive, does much to rival the original Bob Fosse dances.
And as for the cast - it never strikes out. Garber's suave and dandified Devil is diabolically splendid (what a performer!), Dick Latessa's gruffy coach proves top of the major leagues and Jarrod Emick has all-American charm as the transfigured ballplayer. And while Bebe Neuwirth misses the little-girl-innocence of Gwen Verdon's original seductress (catch it all on video), she has slink and glamour to spare (but happily doesn't).
So don't miss this show, and having not missed it, don't miss one of the best bits - the curtain call finale. Play ball!
Late in the second act of "Damn Yankees," the Devil, otherwise known as Applegate, and Lola, his chief henchwoman in damnation, are picking their way across the stage, blanketed in fog. Where are we? she asks. Pointing a flashlight at the audience and peering out into the darkness, he says, "Look, this is limbo."
How right he is. Musical-comedy limbo.
In the revival that opened last night at the Marquis Theater, "Damn Yankees," a big hit once upon a time, now comes off as a period piece that can't quite transcend its period, the mid-1950's. It was never exactly a classic musical, just a loud and flashy one. But among its sure-fire assets, the original 1955 production could count Gwen Verdon's seductively impertinent performance as Lola, a generous serving of Bob Fosse's swivel-jointed choreography and a roisterous anthem called "Heart."
This revival, which began at the Old Globe Theater in San Diego, has "Heart" and special effects.
While it can also claim Victor Garber, in a number of increasingly red outfits as Applegate, and Bebe Neuwirth, in varying states of undress as Lola, the two stars do little to advance the cause of naughty razzle-dazzle, which gave the show its fizz, for the Eisenhower years at least. A far more adroit actor than he is allowed to be here, Mr. Garber has been encouraged to go for the apoplectic grimaces and smoldering burns that used to be Paul Lynde's stock in trade. It's overkill most of the way. In "Those Were the Good Old Days," a vintage soft-shoe number, he could be wearing combat boots.
A short blond wig capping her waifish face, Ms. Neuwirth is unrecognizable from her appearances on "Cheers." Her legs are astonishingly long, and she kicks them exceedingly high. She's not a very witty temptress, however, and there's too much of the sweaty aerobics class about Rob Marshall's choreography to make her appear an effortless one. That pretty much dooms "Whatever Lola Wants (Lola Gets)," a show-stopper that in Ms. Neuwirth's thin and somewhat chilly performance simply registers as hard work.
A sporting twist on the "Faust" legend, "Damn Yankees" tells how middle-aged Joe Boyd, a perpetually frustrated fan of the Washington Senators, makes a pact with Applegate and is transformed into Joe Hardy, the 22-year-old slugger who will finally lead his team to victory over the juggernaut that is (or was) the New York Yankees. The book by George Abbott and Douglass Wallop has been revised, if not exactly overhauled, by Jack O'Brien, also the musical's director. Several of the songs by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross have been shuffled around. A joke about the great lovers of history concludes with "J. Edgar Hoover and Clyde Tolson," certainly an unthinkable punch line in 1955. The most quixotic change, however, has to do with the 11 o'clock spot, "Two Lost Souls," the blaring, bluesy duet originally sung by Joe and Lola when it looked as if Applegate had gotten the better of them both. Presumably so the stars can share a big number side by side, the song has been reassigned to Lola and Applegate. It doesn't make a whole lot of sense, though, for the Devil to view himself as one of those poor lost souls, or for Lola, who has been trying to break free of him for much of Act II, to join her strutting step to his. The plot has reached a critical juncture, and suddenly they're behaving as if they were the best of pals and vaudevillians.
If this paid off in pure pizazz -- the only justification for bringing back "Damn Yankees" in the first place -- you could accept the assault on logic. But the choreography at this point comes precariously close to energetic walking, and worse, Mr. Garber and Ms. Neuwirth fail to combust in each other's presence.
Since they exercise a diminishing claim on an audience's attention, the focus passes easily to the supporting cast. Here, "Damn Yankees" is on sounder footing. Linda Stephens, a devastating stroke victim last season in the musical "Wings," has innate warmth as Meg, the wife Joe leaves behind for the ballpark. When Dennis Kelly, the older Joe, yearns wistfully for his bygone vigor, you can clearly see the barefoot boy in the paunchy man, while the lantern-jawed Jarrod Emick has no trouble portraying the youthful All-American Joe who lands on the Wheaties box. Even though he has a voice that could silence an umpire, Mr. Emick doesn't let strength overpower the traces of his middle-aged self, who continues to pine sweetly for his spouse.
The show's view of marriage -- wife waiting patiently at home while husband runs off to satisfy one last post-adolescent itch -- is as much of the 50's as the pink and pale green kitchen where Meg spends the empty hours washing dishes. The domestic drama represents the sappier side of "Damn Yankees." Nonetheless, the performers enter into it with such heartfelt simplicity that songs like "A Man Doesn't Know" and "Near to You" take on real poignance, suggesting that there actually may be some people there on the stage. In the locker room and on the baseball diamond the characters promptly revert to types. But if the Senators are the usual joke-cracking, gum-chewing crew, they step up to "Heart," still the evening's best number, and belt it into the bleachers.
Although there's a generally low-tech look to things, the sets, designed by Douglas W. Schmidt with a cartoonists's love for bold shapes and primary colors, and the gaudy costumes by David C. Woolard serve as reminders that the 1950's was not always an era of good taste. The locker room features functioning showers. (Predictably, one of the players is caught with his towel down by a female sportswriter chasing a scoop.) What comes out of the shower heads is not water, though, but a kind of dry-ice mist that brings to mind far more sinister shower rooms of the past.
The overall rambunctiousness of the production is Mr. O'Brien's attempt, I assume, to duplicate the snappy pace and crackling wit favored by Mr. Abbott, the original director of "Damn Yankees." At 106, the veteran showman is said to have helped out on this revival. He can't be too happy with the results. Speed, in this instance, seems a diversionary tactic.
One of the evening's running gags has it that every time Applegate becomes agitated, his fingertips turn to matchsticks and he inadvertently starts minor conflagrations. Technology allows this effect. It permits onstage fireworks. It also makes possible the great balls of fire whooshing up out of the floorboards just as Mr. Garber and Ms. Neuwirth are reaching the climax of "Two Lost Souls."
When the performers fail to ignite the stage, I guess the technicians have to do it for them.
After a string of failures and no-shows, the Marquis Theater finally has a tenant deserving of a long run, and in a winter that just won't quit, this high-spirited, warmhearted "Damn Yankees" comes not a moment too soon. Occasionally pinning a '90s tail on a '50s donkey, the show is spun out with great verve and style.
Sure, the whole is more than the sum of its parts, but to score with "Damn Yankees" all you gotta have, to quote the musical's most famous lyric, is heart, and this "Damn Yankees" has heart to spare. It's good, brainless fun -- a first-rate production of a second-rate show.
If plans to telecast "Yankees" later this spring via pay-per-view pan out, it also should go over well on the small screen, where star Bebe Neuwirth is sure to bring in plenty of her "Cheers" fans. And they'll be in for a hell of a surprise -- pun intended.
Director Jack O'Brien has pulled off a small coup, snickering at the show's ' 50s middlebrow sentimentality while at the same time heightening the sentiment. Gore Vidal did this back in the '50s, with the gentle "Visit to a Small Planet." Like Vidal, O'Brien uses television as his skeleton key into comfy, postwar suburban America, a world of phones, Formica and Fiesta Ware. All are paid humorous homage in Douglas W. Schmidt's sets and David C. Woolard's costumes, color-coordinated in the preferred fruit schemes of the time: avocado, lemon, lime, peach.
Here in the living room of Joe (Dennis Kelly) and Meg (Linda Stephens) Boyd are the pole lamps, free-form tables and ellipsoid lighting fixtures that instantly establish the period against a backdrop of TV screens (remember rooftop antennas?) looming behind the actual set on which disgruntled real estate salesman Joe watches his beloved, hapless Washington Senators lose, again , to the invincible Bombers.
Why, he'd sell his soul to give the Senators a long-ball hitter who could put them in contention. That, of course, is exactly what he very nearly does. With a little salesmanship from the Devil, Applegate (Victor Garber), Joe is transformed into strapping Joe Hardy (Jarrod Emick), soon known as Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, Mo.
For six months he's a phenom, though even with the considerable enticements of Applegate's sexy assistant, Lola (Neuwirth), he can't lick his homesickness. In the end, it's paunchy Joe Boyd who carries the day -- for both family and the home team.
"Damn Yankees" is a slim offering whose creators simply put tracing paper over their first hit, "The Pajama Game." The show hasn't aged well -- like the Senators, the soul of the country has moved west -- and so O'Brien wraps it in a '90s sensibility: Applegate's D.C. headquarters is in the basement of the Senate chamber, and there are references -- some sly, some thuddingly heavy-handed -- to everything from "It's A Wonderful Life" to Edsels, Joe McCarthy, and J. Edgar Hoover's alleged homosexuality.
With a nod from original director and co-librettist George Abbott, O'Brien also tries with limited success to flesh out the three principal women's roles, sports reporter Gloria Thorpe (Vicki Lewis), Meg and Lola. Thus Meg gets to call her husband "old boy" no fewer than three times so that Joe's "Goodbye, Old Girl ," sung to his sleeping wife as he sneaks off, doesn't sound quite so much like a farmer's tribute to his expired mare. When Joe first dazzles the Senators with his batting power, Gloria's response is a jarring "nice ass." And Lola now makes a more sympathetic transition from Devil's disciple to simpering acolyte.
For all the effort, "Damn Yankees" still plays like an artifact from a bygone time. But what a pleasure this production is anyway. The Douglas Besterman orchestrations are muscular (23 in the orchestra!); Rob Marshall's choreography recalls "Whorehouse"-era Tommy Tune in the ensemble numbers while paying lovely homage to original dancemaker Bob Fosse and his star, Gwen Verdon, in the numbers for Lola; and costume designer David Woolard clearly had fun; mambo-crazed Sister (goofy Susan Mansur) gets a polka-dots-and-playing-card number, while spunky Gloria sports capri pants and bolero jackets.
Over it all, O'Brien has done a fine job of greasing the show's creaky '50s musical machinery. He's given Marshall a new dance number -- the funny "Blooper Ballet"-- and there's now a bit in which Joe endorses everything from Camel cigarettes to Wheaties, that moves things along speedily. The director shuffled several numbers, including making "Whatever Lola Wants (Lola Gets)" the Act 1 finale.
One striking mistake is giving "Two Lost Souls" to Lola and Applegate -- surely to give the talented Garber another number -- and while logic isn't the show's strong point to begin with, this makes no sense because the tune belongs to Lola and Joe. Worse, Garber's and Neuwirth's voices don't blend well.
O'Brien also fails to settle on a consistent tone for his actors. Garber, one of the best in the business, so camps up Applegate that in the end, his inherent charm is almost totally subsumed; Ray Walston may have been an odd choice for the original, but he made Applegate sly, almost impish. Garber's snotty and petulant when he isn't being outrageously hammy, and while he puts over "Those Were the Good Old Days" with appealing relish, more often than not he's too obvious to be much fun.
Many will find Neuwirth sensational, and it will be hard to argue with them. She's a breathtakingly limber dancer, she has a fine voice, and she's in great shape. But with her peroxide-blond hair cropped like Madonna's on her "Girly Show" tour, and a frame sure to strike some as frighteningly skeletal, Neuwirth is nobody's idea of a '50s seductress. It's a wholly admirable performance, but even if you aren't moved to worry about the actress's health, it's tough to warm to.
Both Joes are terrific: Kelly delivers "Goodbye, Old Girl" with soaring sweetness, while Emick brings a fresh-faced, square-jawed athleticism to young Joe reminiscent of Neuwirth's "Cheers" co-star Woody Harrelson. Stephens, magnificent in the musical adaptation of "Wings," strikes many poignant notes as Meg. Dick Latessa brings a nostalgic, Leo Durocher gruffness to club manager Van Buren, while also showing great vocal chops on "Heart." Among the leads, only the rubber-faced Lewis fails to rise above the ordinary as Gloria -- a thankless role, to be sure.
Nevertheless, "Damn Yankees" is immensely appealing. It faces stiff competition from more serious contenders this spring, but that may prove to be its saving grace: Like the upcoming "Grease" revival, "Damn Yankees" isn't out to make a serious case for a great work of art. It promises no more than a view from the bleacher seats of the American musical -- where you can't see much but you can have a great time with friends and maybe snare a long ball or two.