‘Damn Yankees’ star Ann Morrison brings heart to Ordway musical

Chris Hewitt, Pioneer Press 6/12/15

A performer could not have a splashier Broadway debut than Ann Morrison did in 1981 but she’s returned to the Great White Way just once since then because her life took a different turn.

The ebullient Morrison created the lead role of Mary on Broadway in Stephen Sondheim’s eagerly anticipated “Merrily We Roll Along,” a less-eagerly-received flop that has found a loyal following in subsequent productions. Morrison has done plenty of stuff in the intervening 34 years — including Broadway’s “LoveMusik” with fellow Sondheim veterans Michael Cerveris and Donna Murphy — and now she finds herself in St. Paul, reuniting with an old pal for a production of the stage classic “Damn Yankees.”

In the show, which includes the songs “Whatever Lola Wants” and “Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, Mo.,” Morrison plays Meg, whose husband, Joe, is a fan of baseball’s Washington Senators. One night as he bemoans the fate of his team, the devil gives Joe (Lawrence Clayton) an deal: He can become a Senator slugger and finally help beat those damn Yankees, but it will mean renouncing his soul.

“Meg is a smaller role but as Jamie (“Yankees” director James A. Rocco) will say, she really is the heart of the play,” says Morrison, who did her “favorite ‘Cabaret’ ever” with Rocco in Wichita, with her as Sally Bowles and him as the Emcee. “Jamie is such a wonderful director. We’ve been reunited after, I don’t know, 25 years, I think, but we’ve kept up our friendship, and I was so tickled when he asked if I’d play Meg.”

The flashier scenes in “Damn Yankees” involve the devil, who calls himself Mr. Applegate (Monte Riegel Wheeler), but Morrison was attracted to the show by the chance to embody its heart.

“Even though she’s been left behind by her husband, Meg always believes he’s going to come back. She’s very strong,” Morrison says. “That’s really why I wanted to do this part. It’s nice to play those grounded, solid human beings.”

There’s a pretty good chance Morrison is one of those human beings.

After seeing that the best Broadway roles were going to TV stars and realizing that TV “wasn’t my world,” she moved to Florida, where she had lived before “Merrily We Roll Along.” The move was inspired, in part, by something her son said when he was 5.

“He said, ‘Why is it when people say what they want to be when they grow up, they never are that?’ And I said, ‘That’s it. I have to show him you can be what you say you want to be,’ ” says Morrison, who is dyslexic and who says she “discovered that (her) path was to create musical theater for people with developmental disabilities.”

In addition to writing plays and performing with Kaleidoscope Musical Theatre, Morrison has created cabaret performances and is artistic director of Florida-based Gotta Van Productions, which is devoted to developing new work. She’s also a motivational speaker who lectures about the arts and disabilities.

“Actually, I spent three days in Minneapolis with Interact (Center for the Visual and Performing Arts, which has relocated to St. Paul). What I love about that company is that their performers can take that step to say, for example, ‘I am a person with Down syndrome, I have an extra chromosome and now I’m going to sing a song that will make you laugh and then tear your heart out,’ ” Morrison says. “These kids have a wonderful sense of who they are and I love training audiences to get to that step of realizing that we’re all misfits.”

Morrison says she’s been having a great time with the misfits in the Ordway’s “Damn Yankees,” too.

“Jamie has assembled this amazing company. Everyone is so with-it,” says Morrison, whose small part has afforded her time to investigate some of the Twin Cities finer museums and riverboats. “There’s humor and laughing and tons of fun. Honestly, when the rehearsal process ends, it’ll be sad.”

But she won’t waste too much time mourning. Morrison has lots on her schedule, including a movie that will feature her revisiting her big Broadway break. Lonnie Price, her co-star in “Merrily We Roll Along,” is assembling a documentary about the original production, focusing on five of the key players.

“Either I’m going to be very embarrassed when I see it and want to hide under a table because I’m a pretty odd bird and I always forget when I’m talking that, when people ask you a question, not everyone expects an honest answer. Or I’ll love it. Who knows?” Morrison says.

Either way, the film is likely to firm up Morrison’s small but prominent place in musical history.

“Isn’t it weird? In some circles, I’m considered a cult star. I walk into most rooms and no one has a clue who I am, but I walk into one or two others and it’s, ‘Oh my god. Ann Morrison!’ ” she says. “It’s so silly and so bizarre.”

Don’t miss Ann Morrison as Meg Boyd in Damn Yankees, June 16-28.

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