nytheatre.com review by Nita Congress
March 11, 2012
As spring blossoms forth, and the hopeful promise of Opening Day looms just ahead, the timing of happy, hearty, wholesome Damn Yankees could not be any better. The Paper Mill program says it best; Damn Yankees is “the finest marriage of America’s favorite, quintessential pastimes—baseball and musical comedy!”
And the play is well served indeed by the Paper Mill, with lively dancing, brassy singing, bold costumes, and brisk staging. It is exuberantly acted, sung, and danced. And, unlike all too many revivals, its heart is happily on its sleeve. There is not a whiff of postmodernist irony to be found in Millburn. This production believes in the show, and the audience responded in kind, happily humming up the aisles, lingering a bit before reluctantly reentering a real world made all the more harsher, colder, and meaner by the contrast.
A quick recap, for those not familiar: Damn Yankees is an American Faust tale, with long-time Washington Senators fan (the play is set in the fifties) and middle-aged real estate broker Joe Boyd selling his soul to the Devil, Mr. Applegate, for the chance to lead his team to victory over the Yankees. But once granted youth and athleticism—not to mention a siren named Lola summoned by Applegate to keep Joe in check—Joe discovers that there is more to life than baseball, and he exercises the escape clause he worked into his contract (although not quite as he had envisioned) for a most satisfying happy ending.
Damn Yankees is first and foremost a dancing show, and choreographer Denis Jones fills the stage with leaping, backflipping, somersaulting dancers. Dance captain Robbie Roby effortlessly ratchets up the energy, as he and the ballplayers energetically execute the exhilarating “Shoeless Joe” and “The Game.” Nancy Anderson, as intrepid girl reporter Gloria Thorpe, kicks off her shoes and joins in with aplomb. And Chryssie Whitehead as Lola sizzles in her numbers, kicking her leg straight up in a most thrilling fashion, vamping and mamboing with zest, verve, and vigor. Jones inserts many witty touches in the choreography (including a couple of Marx Brothers references), but this is American musical comedy dancing through and through: brash, and big, and bold.
The staging is similarly supportive, with sets kept to a minimum to give the actors room to dance and move against and under the lighting designs of Tom Sturge, who renders the loveliest of blue skies for the ballplayers and the jolliest of hellfire insinuations for Mr. Applegate. The economical sets by Rob Bissinger are smart and lovingly detailed, however, with a sumptuous red-themed bedroom for Mr. A. and a stone-fireplaced hearth centered in the home (where the heart is) for Joe and Meg.
Director Mark S. Hoebee keeps the action moving seamlessly and, in a couple of places, surprisingly. He commits a particular piece of magic early on in changing Joe Boyd into young Joe Hardy (his choices for changing him back are not quite as successful, but that is a quibble). Throughout, he keeps his actors vibrant and fresh and completely sincere and unmannered. I wish their attentions were kept outward toward the audience rather than focused on each other in dialogue and dance, but again, that is a minor criticism.
As for the leads, Chryssie Whitehead brings sass and brass and miles of talent to her portrayal of Lola; her dancing is superb and her forthright manner very engaging. Howard McGillin makes a most affable Mr. Applegate, and Christopher Charles Wood is a highly appealing Joe Hardy. Patti Cohenour and Joseph Kolinski as Meg and Joe Boyd are a believable loving couple. Nancy Anderson commands attention every time she is on the stage, and Ray DeMattis brings much warmth and kindness to team manager Van Buren.
At base (no pun intended), this production is a highly reliable rendering of a most reliable classic. And in these uncertain times, it’s awfully comforting to go someplace that remembers “(You’ve Gotta Have) Heart.”