KPBS AIRDATE: October 6, 1993
If you remember the Washington Senators, you might remember them playing those ‘damn Yankees.’ If you don’t remember, it’s okay. Because the Globe’s new revival of “Damn Yankees” will definitely transport you to the fifties.
The chairs are overstuffed, the women wear crinolines, and the Senators have about as much chance of winning the pennant as…. the Padres.
Sitting center stage, on one of those overstuffed chairs, is Joe Boyd, a middle-aged man who puts the fanatic back in ‘fan.’ He vows he’d sell his soul to have the Senators win the pennant. And presto! As if by wizardry, the devilish Mr. Applegate rises from the underworld, and offers to make good on Joe’s vow. The old fan regains his youth as Joe Hardy, the world’s greatest hitter. But he has to do battle with busybody journalists, bad press, and the irrepressible Lola (remember, “Whatever Lola Wants, Lola Gets”).
The story is Faust gone fifties, based on the Douglass Wallop novel, “The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant,” and it hasn’t been revived that much since its 1955 Broadway debut, because it became a signature piece for its star, Gwen Verdon, and her then-husband, choreographer Bob Fosse. They were hard acts to follow.
Now Lola is played by Bebe Neuwirth, hot from the London production of “Kiss of the Spider Woman, and probably better known as Dr. Lilith Sternin-Crane on “Cheers.” She’s very, very talented: agile, graceful, resonant, and 98% legs. But alas, she’s no Gwen Verdon. She’s super, sometimes sexy, but she’s not a show-stopper. Her partner in crime, Victor Garber, had to follow Ray Walston’s impish, elfin Mr. Applegate. Garber, in his nicely expanded role, is more refined and urbane, but less endearing. Everything is there in both of them — except for leap-to-your feet charisma.
Director Jack O’Brien’s retooling of the script, with the approval of the indomitable, 106 year-old co-writer, George Abbott (who was, amazingly, present at the opening), does help to tighten up the story.
Rob Marshall’s choreography is great for the guys: there’s something kinda breathtaking about a ball-team chorus line. But the mambo number associated with Verdon and Fosse falls flat. Not because of the musical accompaniment. James Raitt directs the lively pit orchestra with so much flair and enthusiasm, even the overture is a kick to watch… and that’s really something.
The momentum is tremendous in the first act, but when the act goes on for almost two hours, we lose it, and they lose us. That’s not to say that “You Gotta Have Heart” isn’t as fabulous as ever. Or that tiny little Vicki Lewis doesn’t go great guns with the guys in “Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, Mo.” But things still sag between musical numbers. Oh, those musical numbers! Co-composer/lyricist Richard Adler was in the opening night audience, and I hope he was duly proud. They just don’t write ’em like this any more.
But even with lively direction and technical upgrades, “Damn Yankees” is hopelessly soppy and old-fashioned. I don’t know how Broadway is gonna take it come spring, but San Diego should love it. It may be flawed, it may need more flash, but it’s a kind-of-romantic story about America’s most romanticized sport, and it’s got a score that’s hummable, clever and definitely durable. And that’s damn well worth the trip.
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS radio.
©1993 Patté Productions Inc.