I grew up in a rabid Brooklyn Dodgers family and the expression “damn Yankees” was a common complaint around our house. If the Devil had appeared on our doorstep offering us the same deal as that Washington Senators fan Joe Boyd accepts in Damn Yankees, it’s not inconceivable one of us would have taken it.
The more you know about the Yankees’ dominance in the 1950s – they won the World Series from 1949-53, then again in ’56 and ’58 – the easier it will be to enjoy the musical, but there are still pleasures for everyone despite its feeble book. The 1955 script by George Abbott and Douglass Wallop is not only dated, but also has a hard time making a compelling story out of a diehard baseball fan’s pact with the Devil.
Still, the music is tuneful, the choreography (by Denis Jones after Bob Fosse’s original) sparkling, and the performances - with a few exceptions (more on that later) - first-rate.
The curtain opens with Joe (Hugh Hastings) glued to the TV set as his hometown Senators lose once more to that damned New York team. Ignored wife Meg (Patti Cohenour) sits politely by his side, then in frustration belts out the baseball widow’s lament, “Six Months Out of Every Year.” Cohenour has a powerful voice that reaches to the rafters and in this song she sounds uncannily like Ethel Merman. When the game is over, Joe mutters to himself, “I’d sell my soul for one long-ball hitter” and poof! Mr. Applegate (Hans Altwies) aka the Devil appears in a cloud of smoke.
Applegate makes Joe an offer he can’t refuse. He will turn Joe into a youthful baseball superhero with one catch: When the Senators win the pennant, Joe will have to accompany Applegate to Hell for eternity. Joe, a real estate salesman, is as sharp as Applegate and negotiates a first-ever escape clause. At that instant, in a bit of stage magic, the beefy middle aged Joe Boyd is transformed into Joe Hardy (Christopher Charles Wood), a lean young hunk with almost supernatural batting skills.
From this point on the story gets silly and predictable but, like other musicals of its era, Damn Yankees is designed largely as a vehicle for rousing song and dance numbers. And oh what numbers they are! Richard Adler’s and Jerry Ross’ music and lyrics hold up well, especially “Heart (you gotta have heart),” “Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, MO,” “Two Lost Souls,” and of course “Whatever Lola Wants.”
From the moment the curtain goes up, the entrance that everyone is waiting for is Lola’s. Played to perfection by Gwen Verdun in the original Broadway later film versions, Lola is the ultimate vamp, summoned by Applegate to keep Joe's mind off his wife. Sexy, elegant and playful, Verdun brought a sensuousness to the role that made it easy to believe her Lola was irresistible. In the current revival, Chrysie Whitehead is pretty and talented, with kicks as high as the sky. But her Lola is too flamboyant and in the “Whatever Lola Wants” number, with her jutting hips and wiggling posterior it’s not hard to understand why Joe Hardy recoils at her advances.
When she lets go of the temptress role, however, as she does in her “Two Lost Souls” duet with Wood, Whitehead’s sweetness comes through and it’s easy to see her as another of the Devil’s victims.
Wood is engaging as an innocent young Joe Hardy, who seems just as surprised by his athletic prowess as everyone else is. Wood has a versatile voice that can hit his challenging high notes as well as the deeper, richer passages and is especially touching in his duets - “A Man Doesn’t Know” and “Near to You” with Cohenour. He’s a fine actor and prevents his scenes with Meg from falling into bathos. He never lets us forget that his Joe Hardy is really Joe Boyd and that his heart is back at home in Chevy Chase – with Meg – rather than in the ballpark.
As Applegate, Hans Altwies doesn’t really come alive as deliciously evil until his second act solo “Those Were the Good Old Days.” Up to this point he is too restrained for the manipulative, soul-stealing Satan, but in “Good Old Days,” he finally cuts loose. Remembering with glee the greatest villains and catastrophes of history (presumably his doing), the suave Altwies cavorts around the stage in devil-may-care style. It’s a tour de force performance but comes too late to inject much energy into the show’s central role.
The rest of the cast is superb. Cohenour as Meg is sweet but not saccharine in a role that can easily be overplayed. She is so convincing as the devoted wife that she forces us to suspend belief when Joe Boyd disappears, then accepts him back, no questions asked, when he reappears.
Another standout is Nancy Anderson as the brassy, fast-talking sports reporter Gloria, who knows there’s some bigger story behind Joe Hardy’s sudden arrival. She never quite figures it out – who could? – but in the process she gets to belt out “Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, MO,” a blockbuster production number if ever there was one. Anderson sounds remarkably like a young Bernadette Peters and steals every scene she’s in.
The production design is up to the Fifth’s usual high standards with sets and costumes that perfectly capture the mid-century modern style of the ‘50s. Tom Sturge’s lighting design is especially noteworthy, particularly in the scene where Applegate turns Joe Hardy back into Joe Boyd. In a stunning freeze-frame effect, Sturge illuminates Applegate’s face in white while throwing dark red light on everyone else. It’s a shocking reminder that, despite his human appearance, Applegate is not in fact like the rest of us.
Perhaps the best reason to see this Damn Yankees is for the dancing. Choreographer Jones has retained much of Fosse’s pizzazz but updated the movement to make it even more athletic. Virtually all the dancers are Fifth Avenue regulars and bring their characteristic flair and energy to the extended dance numbers.
Damn Yankees may not win the prize as the best musical ever but 57 years after it first opened on Broadway, it can still provide a jolt of joy for baseball and non-baseball lovers alike.
If you go: Damn Yankees, Fifth Avenue Theatre, 1308 Fifth Avenue, through June 5. Tickets starting at $19 at the box office, by phone at (206) 625-1900 or (888) 5TH-4TIX or online at www.5thavenue.org.