Ordway’s ‘Damn Yankees’ loads the bases with this winning production

Chris Hewitt, Pioneer Press 6/19/15

The singers hit it out of the park in the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts’ “Damn Yankees.”

Featuring a baseball player who frets, “You can’t play good if you’re worried” (a sentiment Twins manager Paul Molitor has repeatedly expressed over the past couple of weeks), the buoyant “Damn Yankees” is nicely timed to yank Twins fans out of their funk.

It’s about the Washington Senators — who, a pre-show announcement reminds us, are now the Twins. It’s the 1950s and they are undermanned until a middle-age fan named Joe Boyd, listening to the game at home, muses that he’d sell his soul to help his team topple the Yankees. Faster than you can say, “Yerrrrrr out!” the devil pops up in the sardonic, red-suited form of Mr. Applegate, who transforms schlubby Joe Boyd into ripped slugger Joe Hardy. He promptly takes the Senators on a pennant run while Boyd’s devoted wife, Meg, assures everyone that her mysteriously missing husband will return one day.

With its nimble book and tuneful, funny songs (including vampy “Whatever Lola Wants,” rousing “Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, Mo.” and delightfully barbershop quartet-ish “Heart”), “Damn Yankees” follows two tracks. It shifts between scenes that show Mr. Applegate and his assistant, Lola, with the Senators and scenes of Meg’s home life in Hannibal, Mo.

Most productions tilt toward the baseball scenes, with the actors playing Applegate and Lola usually the biggest stars, but this cozier, less dance-oriented “Damn Yankees” tips the scales toward Missouri, in large part because the first two performers on stage grab our hearts for the duration. As Meg and Joe, Ann Morrison and Lawrence Clayton instantly establish a soulful connection that anchors the whole evening.

They also establish the consistent vocal strength of this production — in fact, the one bad thing about Joe Boyd’s transformation is that it means we don’t get to hear Clayton’s gorgeous voice much after that, although Thay Floyd’s Joe Hardy is a sweetly earnest consolation. In every role, directors James A. Rocco and Sharon Halley have cast superlative singers, who make the case that Richard Adler and Jerry Ross’ score is one of the more underrated ones in musical theater (even Tari Kelly, miscast as Lola, sings the heck out of the part).

And that score is beautifully integrated into a show that seems pretty close to perfect in the way it’s put together: Right when we need a ballad to remind us of the show’s warmth, we get one, and right when we need a show-stopper to get things in gear (like “Heart,” which opens the second act), we get that, too.

Unlike the recent “Camelot,” “Damn Yankees” does justice to the score with a sizable cast and a terrific orchestra. And, beginning with the zippy overture, it’s nice to see the orchestra on stage, although they sure do look cramped in the mock dug-out into which they’re been shoved.

In general, J Branson’s set is the weak element of the production. I appreciate the impulse to employ projections to speed the action along, but the decision to project what appear to be children’s drawings on the back of the stage is puzzling.

But that’s a minor whiff in a pleasingly old-fashioned show that has, as the song promises, miles and miles of heart.

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