It’s easy to overlook the lack of connective tissue in Damn Yankees because the 5th Avenue Theatre’s staging, produced in association with New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse, is so thoroughly fun. The choreography sizzles, the performances delight and the comic timing is polished and precise. The musical’s sum never lives up to the heights of its best parts, but the parts themselves sure are entertaining.
With music and lyrics by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross and book by George Abbott and Douglass Wallop, Damn Yankees finds diehard Washington Senators fan Joe Boyd (Hugh Hastings) in perpetual disappointment at the lackluster efforts of his team. Losing is a way of life for the Senators, especially when it comes to a matchup against the Yankees, where it’s a near certainty.
Frustrated after another loss, Joe moans about the need for a power hitter, and in doing so, summons Mr. Applegate (Hans Altwies), a serpentine character who can make it happen, in exchange for one little old soul. In fact, Applegate can make Joe himself the answer to his own prayers, turning the potbellied 50-something into 22-year-old long-ball hitter Joe Hardy (Christopher Charles Wood).
Normally, these deals are permanent, but Joe orchestrates an escape clause, so he can transform back into his former self and return to his loving wife, Meg (Patti Cohenour), just before the playoffs. Applegate isn’t worried — after all, the thrill of leading a Major League team to the World Series ought to be tough to give up, and if that’s not enough, he’s got an ace up his sleeve in the form of seductress Lola (Chryssie Whitehead).
Despite its status as a minor classic, Damn Yankees suffers from a feeble book that does a lot more telling than showing. Naturally, it’s difficult to recreate a baseball game on stage, but on-field key events are often simply retold in locker rooms and press conferences. Often, the non-musical moments are charged with hefting reams of exposition, as the show’s numbers aren’t terribly well integrated.
The disconnected nature of much of the music can work in the show’s advantage — Lola’s mambo “Who’s Got the Pain?” and Lola and Joe’s duet “Two Lost Souls” are only tenuously connected to the main narrative, but are wholly engaging standalone pieces. Similarly, “Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, MO” begins as a fairly integrated number about Hardy’s past but soon transforms into an extended dance piece with the Senators and nosy reporter Gloria Thorpe (Nancy Anderson).
The dancing in the 5th’s production, choreographed by Denis Jones and retaining some of Bob Fosse’s original flair, is extraordinary, and Wood’s and Whitehead’s vocals demand attention. Ensuring the show’s mischievous side doesn’t get washed away in a sea of exposition is Altwies, whose waggish Applegate steals every scene and finally gets a terrific showcase in Act Two’s “Those Were the Good Old Days.”
Though Damn Yankees itself isn’t a championship contender, I’m confident the 5th’s production ensures it won’t be a disappointment either.
Damn Yankees is on stage at the 5th through May 20. Tickets are available for purchase onine.