Few 1950s musicals have stood the test of time as well as Damn Yankees, proof positive of which can now be seen at Fullerton’s Plummer Auditorium in 3-D Theatricals’ pitch-perfect revival of the 1955 Broadway gem.
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 nearly six decades after its Broadway debut.
The musical’s opening scene introduces us to middle-aged real estate agent Joe Boyd (Robert Hoyt), 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” (Jordan Lamoureux). 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 an American League championship but maybe even win them the World Series.
Intrigued as he is by the offer, Joe Boyd is a sharp enough negotiator to insist on an escape clause. If Joe Hardy decides by midnight on the eve 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 (Cameron Bond), 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 (Cynthia Ferrer) 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 (Alexis Carra), who as any Broadway buff knows by heart, gets “Whatever Lola Wants,” or at least that’s what Applegate is counting on.
Directorial whiz Alan Souza and choreographer extraordinaire Dana Solimando make it clear from the get-go that 3-D Theatricals’ Damn Yankees isn’t going to be the standard retread you might see elsewhere, for instead of having the show’s male ensemble double in the show’s opening number as TV-addicted husbands lost to the Washington Senators “Six Months Out Of Every Year”, Souza and Solimando surround couch-potato Joe Boyd and the long-suffering Meg with the Senators themselves, pitching, catching, batting, and scooting from base to base in as inspired a bit of direction/choreography as I’ve seen set a musical revival in motion.
The creative team’s inspiration began in fact long before opening number and Opening Night with the casting of mid20s Lamoureux as the devilish Mr. Applegate, a role originated on both stage and screen by a 40something Ray Walston and later played by Vincent Price and Van Johnson in their 50s, and even (in the 1994 Broadway revival) by a 70ish Jerry Lewis. And why not have a hot young performer as Applegate when this nontraditional bit of casting not only makes artistic sense (the Devil as Joe Hardy’s contemporary) but provides additional proof that Lamoureux is as fiendishly talented as triple-threats get. (Who else could follow Into The Woods’ boyishly doltish Jack with arguably the most diabolically clever character in musical theater history?)
And how about the casting of the recently rechristened Bond as Joe Hardy! Only a year ago, the then Cameron Sczempka was a just-graduated Azusa Pacific business major. Now, in only his fourth professional role, the tall, strapping, leading-man handsome triple-threat proves himself a veritable Broadway star-in-the-making, not only believable as an overnight American League superstar (no small feat that) but showing off acting chops, dancing feet, and out-of-the-ballpark vocals to match.
As for Carra, could 3-D have cast a more sensational Lola than the stunning Broadway vet and recent ABC sitcom lead? (The question is rhetorical since the answer is so obviously an “Are you kidding!”) Not only does Carra sizzle, sparkle, and scintillate (and prove a comedic delight as “Lola Banana”), the song-and-dance pizzazz that made her A Chorus Line Cassie one of the most spectacular ever gives us a Lola who can most definitely get whatever she wants. And that means whatever!
Supporting cast members are all-around splendid, from the always fabulous Ferrer’s warm and winning Meg to the oh-so versatile Chelsea Emma Franko’s ball-of-fire Gloria to L.A./National Tour treasure Joe Hart as ever-frustrated Senators manager Van Buren to the operatically gifted Hoyt as Joe Boyd to the ever marvelous David Kirk Grant as Senators owner Mr. Welsh to the quintessentially quirky duo of Karla Franko and Tamara Zook as fanatical female fans Doris and Sister. (Wives Jennifer Holcombe, Ashley Matthews, Sarah Meals, and Tiffany Reid are pretty darned terrific as well.)
Last but most definitely not least are the singing-dancing Senators, roles whose demands require an ensemble that only a theater company as top-drawer as 3-D Theatricals can come up with—and what a triple-threat-tastic ensemble this is, beginning with Nick Waaland’s delightfully dumb Rocky, joined by the equally engaging Chris Duir (Smokey), Bren Thor Johnson (Vernon), and Hart in one of Damn Yankee’s biggest hits, “Heart.” Add to that Remmie Bourgeois (Bryant), Michael Coleman (Bouley, Hearn), Nick Gardner (Linville), Chris Holly (Sohovik, Commissioner), Gavin Leatherwood (Buster), Thomas Roy (Lowe, Lynch), and Estevan Valdes (Henry) and the American League’s losingest team gets brought to life by a championship Southern California team if there ever was one.
One sensational production number after another provide proof positive (as if any were needed) that Southland choreographers don’t get any better than Solimando, from the baseball-meets-Broadway moves of “Shoeless Joe From Hannibal, Mo.” to the Latin rhythms of “Who’s Got The Pain” to the Fosse-esque “Two Lost Souls” (to which Solimando has added some sexy backup dancers), with Carra’s “A Little Brains, A Little Talent” and “Whatever Lola Wants (Lola Gets)” and the Lamoureux-showcasing “Those Were The Good Old Days” proving every bit as show-stopping as the bigger ensemble numbers.
Musical director Diane King Vann makes an auspicious 3-D Theatricals debut with Damn Yankees, conducting the production’s Broadway-quality pit orchestra provided by Los Angeles Musicians Collective.
Damn Yankees looks absolutely terrific on the Plummer Auditorium stage, beginning with FCLO Music Theater’s spiffy sets (and additional scenic design by Chris Beyries) lit to vivid perfection by Jean-Yves Tessier. Top marks go also to 5th Avenue’s fabulous Fifties costumes (additional designs by costume coordinator Yolanda Rowell), Cliff & Kat Senior’s wigs (Lola’s multiple colors and dos in particular), Terry Hanrahan’s properties, and Jeffrey S. Marsh’s pyrotechnic design. (Kudos to Lamoureux, who covered nicely for one match trick that didn’t work first time out.) Trap door entrances and exits provoke oohs and aahs as well (though at the performance reviewed, also one unplanned “Huh?”). John Feinstein’s sound design for the most part makes dialog and sound lyrics clearly audible above instrumentals.
Jene Roach is technical director, Donna R. Parsons production stage manager, and David Jordan Nestor assistant stage manager. Damn Yankees is produced by Daniel Dawson, Gretchen Dawson, and Jeanette Dawson. 3-D Theatricals Artistic Director T.J. Dawson is executive producer. Madison Mitchell understudies the role of Lola.
Like its fellow 1950s Best Musical Tony winners (including South Pacific, Guys And Dolls, The King And I, The Pajama Game, My Fair Lady, and The Music Man), Damn Yankees has stood the test of time (and inspired countless regional, school, and community theater revivals) for a reason. They don’t get any better written or composed than this Golden Era classic, and with a director, choreographer, and cast of 3-D Theatricals caliber, SoCal musical theater doesn’t get any better than this either.
Plummer Auditorium, 210 E. Chapman Ave., Fullerton.
July 13, 2014
Photos: Isaac James Creative