Jimmy Ray Bennett
T. Oliver Reid
Chandra Lee Schwartz
Cody Ryan Wise
Don’t expect much of a flutter, let alone palpitations. There’s no need to yell for a doctor in the house. For a musical containing a song entitled Heart, this Encores! Summer Stars production of Damn Yankees is undeniably lacking in muscle.
Damn Yankees, one of the most popular musicals of the 1950s, tells the Faustian story of a middle-aged Washington Senators baseball fanatic, Joe Boyd, who leaves his wife Meg after making a deal with the devil, here called Applegate. What Joe wants more than anything is to lead the Senators to victory against the New York Yankees, and one night he finally gets what he wishes for and is transformed by Applegate into the youthful “shoeless” Joe Hardy, set to become a verifiable sports star.
Starring Jane Krakowski, of TV’s 30 Rock, as Lola and Sean Hayes of Will and Grace as Applegate, Damn Yankees is the second entry in City Center’s annual Summer Stars series, which affords limited runs to star vehicle shows and spawned this past season’s Broadway revival of Gypsy with Patti LuPone, which began last summer at City Center with enough va va voom to knock an audience off its eggrolls.
In this Damn Yankees, we’re instead served a bright and cheery cardboard box of a show, one that’s all too content to shimmer on the surface but refuses to pop. Director John Rando, whose most notable prior credit is Broadway’s Urinetown, seems to have taken much the same quirkily humorous approach with this earnest 1950s musical that he took with that satiric gem. Unfortunately, this is a different beast. Even if it’s dated beyond belief, the show has to exude something more than quirky charm: an old-school earnestness at the very least, and hopefully a sense of vibrancy. Instead, the cast seems to glide through the show, cracking jokes right and left without ever exhibiting the necessary oomph to hit one out of the park.
This is no train wreck of a cast; in fact pretty much everyone is capable. As a pickups team, however, they pitch a disproportionate number of foul balls. Krakowski, radiant in the recent revival of Nine, has got the looks and the charm to pull off the role of Lola, but her performance seems oddly low-wattage, and her dancing rarely sparkles. As Applegate, Hayes possesses the comic chops, but, in yukking it up Will and Grace-style, loses sight of the more sinister side of his netherworldly character. He’s great on the piano, as during Those Were the Good Old Days, but it all feels too much like grandstanding. When it comes to comedy, it’s all in the effortlessness, and these two seemed to be trying too hard.
It seems the very nature of this star-cast production has ended up its undoing. Though Hayes and Krakowski are capable performers in their own right, they’re simply miscast in these demanding roles. Thankfully, the two above-the-title leads are supported by a few gems, particularly Randy Graff, P.J. Benjamin, and Cheyenne Jackson.
Broadway vet Graff plays Meg, her baseball-obsessed husband’s refrains of “Good night, old girl” not quite enough to appease her desire for love. She’s a warm presence, her finely etched Meg exuding just the right melancholic sweetness alongside velvety-voiced Benjamin as Joe Boyd.
It’s Jackson, however, as Joe Hardy, who emerges as the show’s clear star. He’s the most animated of the bunch and the one with the best singing chops. After leading roles in pop-scored shows like All Shook Up and Xanadu, Jackson has finally been given the chance to prove he has the vocal skills to pull off an old-style Broadway show, and if his work here is any indication he’s more than ready for future challenges.
Behind the huge cast, which numbers over thirty, cartoonish scrim-and-cutout-style sets from John Lee Beatty featuring zany wallpapers and vibrant colors ultimately only serve to maintain the flat feeling already evident throughout. Providing the basis for others of the scenes is a ballpark-style set piece, which allows the lush 25-piece orchestra, one of the show’s strongest assets, to sit elevated above the stage proper.
It was when the orchestra got a chance to shine, especially during the bouncy overture and entr’acte, that I felt most energized by this production. The score, by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, is Broadway gold. Standard songs from the show like Heart and Whatever Lola Wants come across pleasingly here while others fail to rise above mediocrity, but it was clear to me during the opening strains of music why Damn Yankees is such a perennial favorite: its big, brassy Broadway quality. It’s a shame that, while the orchestra has the right idea, the cast, despite all its attempts, feels so muted.
Still, as the curtain fell on Hayes’s final shticky scene, audience members around me seemed to having a blast, leaping to their feet as the cast regaled them with a curtain call rendition of Heart. My guess, however, is that it wasn’t the heart on display that provoked their applause but rather the stars in their eyes. With this bright cast, I was looking for a home run, but it seems as if this one’s out at first base. Oh, well. Back to the major leagues.