There’s a lot of heart and soul (the leading character’s, that is) at the core of Goodspeed Musicals’ nifty revival of the classic Broadway musical “Damn Yankees,” that still manages to enthrall and surprise nearly 60 years after its New York premiere.
Part of that may be because the Goodspeed is presenting the “Boston Red Sox” edition, a version crafted by Tony-Award winning writer Joe DiPietro in 2006, for the North Shore Music Theatre just north of the Massachusetts capital. DiPietro maintains the original time frame—the early 1950’s-when the Yankees would win the World Series year after year with their powerhouse team—but replaces the now defunct Washington Senators of the original with the Sox. This revision works in any number of delightful ways, not the least of which is the fans’ lingering belief in “the curse of the Bambino,” Babe Ruth’s evil-eye whammy toward the team that sold him to the Yankees. And with the Goodspeed Opera House located on the eastern side of the Connecticut River, theoretically but narrowly into what is considered Sox territory, the show is playing in essentially the dead center of the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry, which this production cleverly milks for as much as it can.
DiPietro’s revision retains the ‘Faust’-like plot of George Abbott and Douglass Wallop’s original 1955 book, based on Wallop’s novel, “The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant,” in which a rabid Sox fan, the nice-guy middle-aged Joe Boyd, ends up selling his soul to the devil in order to assure a World Series win for the Sox. The songs, by the team of Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, are here in all of their splendor including such numbers that were popular hits back in the day and have become part of the so-called American Songbook, “Heart,” “Whatever Lola Wants, Lola Gets,” and “Two Lost Souls.” Director Daniel Goldstein has wisely deep-sixed the song “Who Gets the Pain,” a mambo written for Gwen Verdon in the original production, that, while it makes for a pleasant novelty number, has essentially nothing to do with the plot and has a tendency to slow the show down.
But be reassured: there’s nothing slow about Goldstein’s production. The evening zips right along, thanks to the careful balancing of exposition with musical numbers, which are staged inventively and drolly by choreographer Kelli Barclay. A dance in which the players swing what look to be genuine wooden bats obviously took a lot of practice to not only coordinate but to also minimize risk. And then later, the guys are required to throw and catch what look to be real baseballs in the midst of another song and dance. There’s even a fanciful nod to the show’s original Broadway choreographer Bob Fosse in the dance section of “Two Lost Souls.”
It’s hard to tell which of the clever touches that have clearly been added to the show can be attributed to Goldstein or to DiPietro. There’s a Latino ballplayer, for example, played by Sean Ewing, who enthusiastically erupts in Spanish at key points in the evening, and a pair of obsessive Red Sox fans, Doris and her sister, Sister, (played by the splendid duo of Alyce Beasley and Kristine Zbornik, in perfect 50’s housewife glory) who sport the most delightfully exaggerated yet somehow accurate Boston accents that I’ve heard in a long time (even when I’m visiting Boston). Their version of a seventh-inning stretch gets the entire audience singing while acknowledging for a brief moment the divided loyalties of our state.
And I don’t recall ever seeing a locker room shower scene in any previous production of “Damn Yankees,” especially one in which the guys dance around in precariously tied towels. To show you how carefully everything is planned out, keep your eyes and ears open for the few lines that are sung directly underneath some splashing showerheads, a brief yet creative moment that exemplifies how little unexpected touches can add so much to the enjoyment of a show.
What continues to give “Damn Yankees” its appeal is that at its heart it is essentially a love story, something that this production, unlike others I have seen, gives precedence. As part of his deal with the devil, Joe Boyd is transformed into the younger, virile Joe Hardy, a ballplayer of extraordinary talent guaranteed to lead the Sox to the Series. As such, Joe has to abruptly leave behind his loving yet log-suffering wife, Meg, who has willingly put up with his obsession “six months out of every year.” But the younger Joe, worshipped by his teammates and the fans, misses Meg tremendously and surreptitiously sneaks back home and convinces her to rent him a room.
A warm relationship ultimately develops between the two, as Meg connects with the goodness of the younger man, while never losing faith that her absent husband will return. The superb Ann Arvia exhibits a warmth and humanity as Meg that makes all of this believable, aided by Stephen Mark Lukas’s ability to connect with her in his role as the virile young Joe Hardy. James Judy as the older Joe also contributes to this aspect of the story, demonstrating a subtle but deeply felt hesitation at leaving home and in a fantasy trio as the two Joe’s reflect upon their need to be close to Meg.
David Beach’s performance as Mr. Applegate, the devil’s earthly disguise, grows on one as the evening progresses, as the character’s smarm and illicit charm, along with his ability to throw a wicked quip, proves rewarding. Beach’s Applegate is slick but not necessarily oily, sometimes recalling those hapless door-to-door salesman from that era who strived to maintain the perfect front at all times. By the time Beach reaches his solo “Those Were The Good Old Days,” he has the audience eating out of his hand, ready to give his character—almost!—the benefit of the doubt.
Angel Reda is a welcome revelation as Lola, Applegate’s sexy minion who is recruited to take the younger Joe’s mind off his wife and tempt him into staying with the team. She provides her own distinctive take on the role, allowing Lola to possess a robust, natural sexuality, while subsequently revealing a tenderness and vulnerability when she realizes that Joe’s love for his wife is strong and genuine. Reda knows how to dazzle with her acrobatic dancing and seduce with her excellent singing chops. As she duets beautifully and heartbreakingly with Lukas on “Two Lost Souls,” one can feel the connection between the Lola and her mark as they resign themselves to their fates.
Lora Lee Gayer demonstrates grit and determination as the sports reporter Gloria Thorpe who leads the team in singing and dancing the praises of their new recruit, "Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, Mo." A trio of players, Rocky, Smokey and Sohovik, played by Michael Mendez, Danny Lindgren, and Victor J. Wisehart, offer some fine ensemble singing as well as comedic dancing. Ron Wisniski is appropriately exasperated as the Sox's much put-upon coach who nonetheless reminds the guys that they've gotta have "Heart."
Scenic designer Adrian W. Jones had constructed a mini-Fenway on the Goodspeed stage painted entirely in that gorgeous green shade to match the Green Monster, which you can see clearly in the show curtain’s aerial drawing of the Red Sox’s Park. He creates a two-tiered effect which allows for action on the field and in the stands. For other locations, such as the Boyd home, evocative set pieces slide in and out in front of the Fenway set. Brian Tovar’s lighting helps keep the focus on the appropriate action, allowing, for example, the audience to preview a season’s worth of Red Sox errors and mishaps during the overture. David Woolard’s costume designs include baseball uniforms that allow for ample flexibility for dancing and, for off-field activities, a full array of 50’s-style shirts, slacks, shoes and jackets for the guys, and sweaters and skirts for Meg and her neighbors. Lola’s outfits put the emphasis on her talents, of course, though she looks just as great in the bobby-sox casual look that Woolard has created for her later in the show.
Dan DeLange has provided some exciting and pleasantly surprising new arrangements for the score, which is played by an eight-person orchestra led by the reliably energetic Michael O’Flaherty.
Goldstein assures that the production conveys the look and feel of the 50’s at all times, including the frustration felt particularly by American League teams each year as the Yankees era of Mantle, Rizzuto, Ford and Berra steamrolled the competition year after year. While the rituals the Red Sox fans engage in to help mitigate the curse, which fact resemble what an actor must do should he or she speak the name of Shakespeare’s Scottish play, are quite funny, it’s even more enjoyable to hear Applegate make reference to the future fortunes of the Sox, both low and high, knowing how the team will redeem themselves during multiple seasons some 50 years later.
You almost wish the Goodspeed sold some hot dogs and popcorn to go along with the grand slam they’ve managed to create on stage.
For tickets and information, call the Goodspeed Box Office at 860.873.8668 or visit their website at www.goodspeed.org.
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