LAST WEEK TO SEE THE MUSICAL COMEDY CLASSIC
BY HENRY EDWARDS
In 2008, New York City’s illustrious City Center Encores! series mounted a first-class revival of the musical comedy classic, “Damn Yankees.” Buoyed by the stupendous ongoing success of the Broadway transfer of its production of “Chicago,” Encores! hoped to do it again. But its production of “Damn Yankees” just wasn’t that good.
On other hand, the current revival of the tuner, on view through April 1 at Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, NJ (www.papermill.org) is lots more fun.
For the few who don’t know it, the 1955 song-and-dance show retells the Faust legend setting in Washington, D.C. during a time when the New York Yankees dominated Major League baseball. The Yankees prove so upsetting to middle-aged and long-suffering fan of the pathetic Washington Senators Joe Boyd, the real estate agent sells his soul to the Devil in return for becoming 22-year-old "Joe Hardy," the home run hitting young slugger the Senators need to win the pennant. Boyd so misses his wife and home he exercises an escape clause and escapes the Devil's clutches after achieving victory for the Senators.
In an cogently written, extremely observant program essay, producing artistic director Mark S. Hoebee writes of Boyd's decision: “'Damn Yankees’ hammers home the idea that the glitz and glamour of what we think we want often pales in comparison to the safe, predictable, even sometimes bland security of our home and loved ones.”
And that, alas, turns out to be the instrinsic problem with show. Half of "Damn Yankees" is glorious, sexy musical comedy bursting with classic pop oriented show tunes ("Heart"; "Whatever Lola Wants"; "Two Lost Souls"). The other half, a musicalized version of the conformist spirit that permeated the 1950s, proves a pale and bland experience for everyone except those for whom "The Donna Reed Show" ranks as enthralling entertainment.
Paper Mill’s edition is as uneven as its source material. Nevertheless, it has plenty to commend it, especially its male chorus of baseball players, each individually and hilariously characterized for maximum comic effect.
Led by whirling dervish Nancy Anderson, these male wonders transform Denis Jones’s choreography for “Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, Mo.” into a staggeringly athletic showstopper that, believe it or not, puts original choreographer Bob Fosse to shame.
Another standout is Christopher Charles Wood's Joe Hardy. Blessed with terrific good looks and a gorgeous, powerhouse of a baritone, Wood proves as compelling an actor as he is a singer, bringing impressive commitment and emotional life to the show’s sappiest songs which take on new meaning as a result of his charged delivery.
All in all, Paper Mill's "Damn Yankees" is a spring tonic! And this is your week to get your dose of it.