Simi Valley Performing Arts Center hit the jackpot earlier this year with productions of the Broadway hits Hairspray and Pippin that rivaled those of bigger-stage, bigger-budget companies like Thousand Oaks’ Cabrillo Music Theatre and Long Beach’s Musical Theatre West. Their latest, a revival of the 1950s Broadway smash Damn Yankees, while not in the same league as its predecessors, does offer sufficient pleasures to recommend it to Simi Valley audiences (with a couple of reservations).
Ask a group of Broadway aficionados their Top Ten Musicals of the 1950s and it’s a sure bet Damn Yankees will make the list of more than a few. With its tantalizing plot (a modern retelling of the Faust legend set in the world of Major League Baseball), its catchy songs (including several that went on to become standards), choreography by Bob Fosse (then only just beginning his rise to legendary stardom), and leading lady Gwen Verdon as Lola (a role which cemented the redheaded powerhouse as a bona fide Broadway great), Damn Yankees had what it took to become a 1000-plus performance Broadway smash and remain an entertaining revival favorite fifty-seven years after its 1955 debut.
Damn Yankees’ opening scene introduces us to middle-aged real estate agent Joe Boyd (Michael German), who spends “Six Months Out Of Every Year” in couch potato mode, plunked down in front of his black-and-white TV set watching his beloved Washington Senators lose game after game after game. If only, muses Joe late one night, the Senators had a long ball hitter—just one would be enough—they could finally beat those “Damn Yankees” and maybe even win the pennant.
As soon as Joe utters the black magic words, “I’d sell my soul for a long ball hitter,” who should suddenly materialize in his living room but the Devil himself in the guise of “Mr. Applegate” (John Dantona). All Joe Boyd has to do, Applegate informs him, is sign on the dotted line and presto change-o, he will be transformed into 20something slugger Joe Hardy, precisely the long ball hitter to propel the Senators not merely to a National League championship but maybe even win them the World Series.
Intrigued as he is by the offer, Joe Boyd is a sharp enough negotiator that he insists on an escape clause. If Joe Hardy decides by 12:00 on the night of the season’s final Senators game that he wants out, then the deal is off. If not, then he is “in for the duration” (and we know what that means).
Realizing that he has, at least for the moment, met his match, Applegate agrees to the escape clause, and lo and behold, instead of Joe Boyd in the living room, there stands Joe Hardy (Andrew Allen), the picture of youthful vim, vigor, and vitality.
With Mr. Applegate as his “manager,” it doesn’t take long for Joe to become a Washington Senator and turn those perennial losers into the winningest team in the USA.
Meanwhile, young Joe has moved into the spare room which Joe Boyd’s lonely, bewildered wife Meg (Judi Domroy) has been persuaded to rent out, the younger Joe’s proximity to his long-underappreciated wife stirring up feelings he thought he’d lost.
Fearful that this longing for his old life with Meg might just prompt Joe Hardy to give up baseball stardom for the simple pleasures of Joe Boyd’s hearth and home, Mr. Applegate decides to call in the sexiest reinforcement in hell, the one and only Lola (Jessica Hren), who as any Broadway buff knows by heart, gets “Whatever Lola Wants,” or at least that’s what Applegate is counting on.
Under Fred Helsel’s capable direction, Dantona delivers by far the production’s standout performance, an electrifyingly devilish, show-stopping turn as Applegate. Hren is a leggy, luscious Lola in the tradition of ‘40s-‘50s Hollywood stunners like Jane Russell and Rita Hayworth, and particularly winning as the Spanish-accented “Lola Banana” in “Whatever Lola Wants.” Allen’s infectious grin, boy-next-door appeal, and from-the-heart acting serve young Joe Hardy well, particularly in scenes opposite Meg, played with sincerity and warmth by Domroy. (Domroy’s and Allen’s duet of “A Man Doesn’t Know” gives Damn Yankees some of its most touching moments.) German impresses as well in a pair of brief scenes that bookend the musical, and sings “Goodbye Old Girl” with a resonant tenor. A fine and feisty Courtney King plays sports reporter Gloria Thorpe with just the right tomboy punch, and sings and dances “Shoeless Joe From Hannibal Mo” with ample pizzazz.
Character roles like Washington Senators manager Van Buren, team owner Welch, and Meg’s sister Sister are adeptly performed by veterans Donald Melton, Andy Mattick, and Julie Jones. Smaller roles are capably filled by Jeanette Airen (Rita), Sara Hertweck (Betty), Shannon Lewis (Reporter), Madeline Perez (Donna), and Melissa Strauss (Lulu).
Where SVCAC’S Damn Yankees proves problematic are in scenes and production numbers involving the Senators themselves, roles requiring performers at the very least in their early to mid-twenties. On the Simi Valley stage, a number of the Senators—Steven Brogan as Sohovik, Matthew Casarez as Rocky, Nicholas Ferguson as Smokey, Kurt Kemper as Vernon, Luis Ramirez as Henry, and Edward Yoo as Ozzie—are high schoolers, terrifically talented high schoolers to be sure, but high schoolers none the less. At best, this means that a big song-and-dance number like “Shoeless Joe From Hannibal, Mo” comes across like something from a well-performed High School Musical instead of a professional production. At worst, it means that Act Two’s “The Game” has underage teens singing about having to resist pre-game sex with a “waitress built for comfort, dumb but pretty” after getting her “up to my hotel suite” where “she killed a pint of gin more or less, the lights were low and she slips off her dress.” Seeing and hearing this number performed by boys as young as fifteen pretending to be men in their twenties or even thirties proves uncomfortable at best. At worst, it might have you squirming in your seat. That being said, “Heart,” featuring Melton, Casarez, Kemper, Ferguson, and the rest of the ballplayers is every bit the harmonious showstopper it’s supposed to be.
Becky Castells has choreographed Damn Yankees’ many infectious dance sequences with a careful eye to the talents of her cast members, the results generating considerable applause. Musical director Gary Poirot once again coaxes tiptop vocal performances from his cast, in addition to conducting a small, live backstage orchestra.
Randon Pool’s 1950s costumes are the production’s best design element, with Shaun Hara’s highly professional lighting design coming in a close second.
Less successful is production designer Seth A. Kamenow’s scenic design, which has many scenes played in front of red and blue curtains and requires cast members to be continually lugging big pieces of furniture on and off stage. The production even concludes with the two performers who have just finished the final notes of “A Woman Doesn’t Know” breaking character to push back a sofa and armchair so that the rest of the cast have room to enter for curtain calls.
Hren is dance captain, Jan Carr assistant costume designer, Lacey Stewart technical director and sound designer (a solid B+ for sound design), Amanda Kamenow rehearsal stage manager, and Carol Harris production stage manager.
While it is true that the abovementioned drawbacks are often an unavoidable “part and parcel” of producing large-cast, multiple-set, non-Equity stagings of big Broadway musicals, because of them Damn Yankees isn’t the Hairspray/Pippin-level production I was hoping to see. On the other hand, the talent involved both onstage and off make this Damn Yankees at the very least worth a look-see by folks up Simi Valley way.
Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center, 3050 Los Angeles Avenue, Simi Valley.
September 16, 2012
Photos: Rena Petrillo