Cabrillo Music Theatre scores an out-of-the-ballpark home run with its revival of the 1955 Broadway gem Damn Yankees, a production highlighted by a quintet of terrific lead performances, numerous supporting gems, and some of the best dancing in town.
Few 1950s musicals have stood the test of time as well as Damn Yankees. 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 six decades after its Broadway debut.
The musical’s opening scene introduces us to middle-aged real estate agent Joe Boyd (John Atkins), who spends “Six Months Out Of Every Year” in couch potato mode, plunked down in front of his 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 Sloman). 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 (Travis Leland), 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 (Sarah Tattersall) 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 (Renée Marino), who as any Broadway buff knows by heart, gets “Whatever Lola Wants,” or at least that’s what Applegate is counting on.
Helming Damn Yankees at Cabrillo are Kirsten Chandler and John Todd, a dream team whose work together is so seamlessly entwined that it’s often hard to tell where Chandler’s inspired direction ends and Todd’s equally ingenious choreography begins, or vice versa.
Take for instance the show’s now iconic opening number that has a neighborhood-full of housewives bemoaning the fact that for “Six Months Out Of Every Year” their TV-addicted husbands are lost to the Washington Senators. By having all these couch potatoes seated on caster armchairs, Chandler and Todd are able to have the number’s eight or so couples rolling all over the Cabrillo stage in just about every configuration imaginable for a number that snaps, crackles, and pops with originality.
As for the Damn Yankees cast, Cabrillo hits a homer with each and every one, beginning with Sloman, whose Mr. Applegate looks like a ’50s business executive shark, sings like the devil, and commands the stage every bit as satanically as he did in his Scenie-winning lead actor turn last year in Musical Theatre Guild’s Sweet Smell Of Success.
With four Broadway shows already under her belt including Jersey Boys (plus Clint Eastwood’s movie adaptation as Mary Delgado), Marino has the triple-threat-chops to give past Lolas a run for their money, a petite ball of fire whose sizzling “A Little Brains, A Little Talent” and “Whatever Lola Wants (Lola Gets)” are everything you want these two numbers to be and more.
In Joe Hardy, 2012 UCLA grad Leland gets the lead role he so richly deserves, combining good looks and sex appeal with boy-next-door charm, terrific acting chops, and dance prowess in equal measure.
Tattersall’s warm and wonderful Meg sings gorgeously (as does Atkins as Joe Boyd) and has a wonderful rapport with both Joes as well as with Farley Cadena and Tara McGrath, each one delightful as Meg’s best chums Sister and Doris. (Cabrillo treasure Cadena in particular deserves cheers for paying homage to sister-originator Jean Stapleton while making the role very much her own.)
Last but definitely not least among principals is the sensational Katheryne Penny, who only four months ago was a graduating UCLA senior and now proves herself a singer-dancer-comedienne to be reckoned with in her scene-stealing turn as feisty ace reporter Gloria Thorpe.
Among the Washington Senators, Michael Mittman’s Rocky, J. Bailey Burcham’s Smokey, and Timothy J. Hearl’s Vernon get the flashiest roles and all three are marvelous, with Mittman in particular reinventing Rocky to irresistible effect. (The trio’s “Heart” opposite the wonderful Tom G. McMahon as Senators manager Van Buren is every bit the showstopper it’s supposed to be, with Mittman’s on-tiptoes stretch whenever Rocky hits a high note an especially inspired choice.)
The rest of the Senators (Tyler Matthew Burke as Sohovik, Ramiro Garcia Jr. as Mickey, Jotapé Lockwood as Del, Dylan MacDonald as Ozzie, Rile Reavis as Henry, Joshua Rivera as Buster, Brance William Souza as Bouley, and Julian Xavier as Bubba) are no slouches in the triple-threat department either, all of them fabulous dancers in addition to making their characters the farthest thing from carbon copies.
The women (Nichole Beeks, Bernadette Bentley, Jenny Hoffman, Janelle Loren, and Alysa Perry) shine too in “Six Months Out Of Every Year” and “Two Lost Souls.”
Cameo roles are ably rendered by Burk as Lynch, Ray Mastrovito as Welch, Paul Panico as Commisioner, and Reavis as Postmaster, and “Kabrillo Kids” Addie Chandler, Calista Loter, Micah Meyers, Drew Rosen, and Marcello Silva are all charmers.
Todd’s choreography dazzles throughout, as do his dancers, 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” (with some sexy couples to back up Lola and Joe.)
Cassie Nickols once again scores top marks for her musical direction and for conducting the production’s Broadway-caliber sixteen-piece orchestra. (Darryl Tanikawa is orchestra contractor and Darryl Archibald music supervisor).
FCLO Music Theater’s sets make for a satisfactory scenic design, one that is lit to perfection by Rand Ryan. Jonathan Burke’s sound design is impeccable as always. Costume designer Christine Gibson scores top marks for coordinating a whole bunch of colorful ‘50s outifts provided by a trio of sources. Alex Choate’s props are pitch-perfect period pieces. As for Cassie Russek’s excellent hair and makeup design, only one blonde chorine’s very WWII-era Betty Grable wig stands out as decade-inappropriate.
John W. Calder III and Chris Warren Murry are production stage managers. Gary Mintz is technical director and Char Brister is crew captain.
With A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, Children Of Eden, and The Little Mermaid still on tap for the coming year, Cabrillo Music Theatre’s 2015-2016 season looks to be as unbeatable as those Damn Yankees.
It is certainly off to an American League championship-winning start.
Cabrillo Music Theatre, Kavli Theatre, Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, 2100 Thousand Oaks Boulevard, Thousand Oaks.
October 16, 2105
Photos: Ed Krieger