Ordway knocks ‘Damn Yankees’ out of the park

Rohan Preston, Star Tribune 6/19/15

REVIEW: Skill and heart also help to make Ordway Center’s zippy production of “Damn Yankees” a splashy success.

“Baseball is 50 percent skill,” the manager tells his perennially losing team, the Washington Senators, in “Damn Yankees.” The rest of the formula is heart — as in “You’ve Got to Have Heart.”

Skill and heart also help to make Ordway Center’s zippy production of “Damn Yankees” a splashy success. I was not expecting this big musical, which runs through June 28, to fail by any stretch. But I wasn’t sure whether this cast, which mixes Broadway veterans with Twin Cities talent, and the directing and choreography team of James Rocco and Sharon Halley, would hit it out of the park. They do, and with winning style.

The 1955 musical by composers/lyricists Richard Adler and Jerry Ross is a retelling of the classic Faust tale set in the milieu of America’s summer pastime.

Tired of watching his beloved Senators lose, schlubby diehard fan Joe Boyd (Lawrence Clayton) makes a deal with the devil, who goes by the name of Mr. Applegate (Monte Riegel Wheeler). He transforms Joe into 22-year-old Joe Hardy (Thay Floyd), a powerhouse slugger who joins the Senators to help them in their pennant race with the Yankees. But the deal comes at great cost, including the loss of his soul and his wife, Meg (Ann Morrison).

The transformation from old Joe Boyd to strapping young Joe Hardy is handled simply but deftly at the Ordway, accompanied by cacophony and fog in front of the Jeff Rizzo-led orchestra, which is at center stage.

When the casting was announced, I wondered why the creative team did not pick its leads from the rich Twin Cities talent pool. The production provides an emphatic answer. For the show to work, we must believe that both Joes are the same person. And in this, there is no doubt. Clayton, whose Broadway credits include “Dreamgirls,” and Floyd (“A Christmas Story The Musical”) share a warmth in their tenor. Their sweetly affecting rendition of “Near to You,” a dreamy number done with Morrison’s longing Meg, is a highlight of the two-hour show.

Mr. Applegate has tricks up his sleeve, one of which, naturally, involves fire. New York-based Wheeler, who slinks, scolds and generally misbehaves, delivers with relish. His big number, “Those Were the Good Old Days,” in which the devil celebrates historic human atrocities, is a showstopper.

Tari Kelly, whose Broadway credits include “Anything Goes” and “Show Boat,” finds all the quirks and silliness of Lola, the devil’s handmaiden. Going from a deep bass to the squeakiest of pitches, and dancing up a storm, she makes this temptress a center of a mambo and tango attraction. It may not always be true that “Whatever Lola Wants, Lola Gets,” but she has fun trying.

Twin Cities actor Kersten Rodau, who plays hard-charging reporter Gloria Thorpe, shines alongside her national co-stars. She brings the house down with her big early number, “Shoeless Joe From Hannibal Mo,” and maintains her spunk and verve throughout a solid, entertaining production.

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