Stage Door Review

Damn Yankees

Wednesday, June 1, 2022

✭✭

music & lyrics by Richard Adler & Jerry Ross, book by George Abbott & Douglass Wallop, directed by Brian Hill

Shaw Festival, Festival Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake

May 28-October 9, 2022

Mr. Applegate to Gloria: “Go home. Get Married. Have children!”

There are musicals whose stories transcend the time in which they were written. Think of Oklahoma (1943), Cabaret (1966) or Sweeney Todd (1979). There are others like Anything Goes (1934) with scores so rich in classic songs that the plot hardly matters. Most other musicals may have a hit song or two but otherwise are relics of their time content to embody the givens of the period when they were written. Such is the case with Damn Yankees from 1955 with music & lyrics by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross and a book by George Abbott and Douglass Wallop. The current Shaw Festival production intentionally presents the musical as a period piece. This may provoke nostalgia in some audience members, but it will make others glad we don’t live in the 1950s anymore.

The story is a fantasy centred on middle-aged real estate agent Joe Boyd (Shane Carty). He is a fan obsessed with the poorly performing Washington Senators who would give anything to see the Senators beat “those damn Yankees”. This wish is enough to summon the mysterious Mr. Applegate (Mike Nadajewski) from his infernal lair to make Joe an offer. Applegate will turn Joe Boyd into a 20-years-younger version of himself named Joe Hardy (Drew Plummer), who will become the long-hitter the Senators need in order to win. Joe will need to leave his wife Meg (Patty Jamieson) without explanation during his time as Joe Hardy which will last until the Senators’ penultimate game. After his death his soul belongs to Mr. Applegate.

Joe agrees to this, the Senators hire him and they finally start winning. Mr. Applegate, however, does not actually want Joe to succeed. He wants the Senators to get close to winning and then lose hoping that the despair will drive Senators’s fans to suicide.

Joe Hardy soon faces two threats – both from women. In the public world Gloria Thorpe (Olivia Sinclair-Brisbane), a quick-witted female reporter, discovers that there no Joe Hardy from Hannibal, Missouri, and wants to expose him as a fraud. In the private world Mr. Applegate summons his femme fatale Lola (Kimberley Rampersad) to try to seduce Joe and take his mind off wholesome thoughts about his wife, his home and his team.

Writers about the musical are eager to point out that the plot is a variation on the Faust legend. What they don’t point out is that the show is a deliberate trivialization of the legend. Faust sought youth and wisdom. Joe just wants his favourite team to win. The point is meant to be comic but it does make Joe look stupid for valuing his soul at such a low price.

What will grate on some people’s nerves is the show’s portrayal of women. With the exception of Gloria, whose smarts in investigative journalism are viewed as a menace, women are either vapid stay-at-home housewives or a sex-crazed vamp like Lola. Even then, proper housewives are so entranced by men that if a famous man comes along, like Joe Hardy, they’ll fling themselves after him. Otherwise, married women’s vow to obey means they have to endure their husbands’ bad habits. The first song in the show is Meg’s lament about how she might as well be a widow during the “Six Months Out Of Every Year” when baseball season is on. Aristophanes’ Lysistrata from 411BC had a more progressive view of women in showing how they could band together to frustrate men’s foolish plans. Here women band together to defeat the plans of another woman, Gloria.

The musical not only does not transcend the mores of the 1950s, it actually defends them. As if aware that the show is an artefact of its period, director Brian Hill has had designer Cory Sincennes paper the basic set with advertisements from the 1950s with all the clichéd images of happy housewives and manly men that were common at the time. There are adverts for smoking and the miracle of household conveniences. I assumed after the first number set at the home of Joe and Meg Boyd, that the set would disappear or be replaced, but it remains in place throughout the entire show no matter whether the scene in the dugout or courthouse. Hill and Sincennes thus literally present the show as trapped in its period.

Allison Plamondon, who choreographed Holiday Inn for the Shaw, does not show enough invention to make the dance numbers really soar. Lola is the seductress of all seductresses, but Plamondon runs out of sashays and high kicks in Lola’s first number “A Little Brains, A Little Talent” so that she can only repeat the moves for Lola’s bigger number “Whatever Lola Wants”. Plamondon’s most athletic choreography is for Gloria and the ball players in “Shoeless Joe From Hannibal, Mo” where she introduces acrobatics into the dance. However, “Who’s Got The Pain?”, is obviously a mambo, but Plamondon ignores the Latin character of the dance until it’s nearly over.

Plamondon’s best number overall is the nightclub scene that extends from the song “Two Lost Souls”. In a nod to the show’s original choreographer, Bob Fosse, she includes lots of finger-snapping, slow feline movements and upheld hands at 90º. Here finally it feels like the choreography and the music mesh.

Brian Hill’s direction is efficient and unfussy and he draws committed performances from the entire cast. It’s fun that he incorporates magic tricks designed by Skylar Fox to keep us aware that show is a fantasy.

It so happened that I saw the first performance in which understudy Drew Plummer stepped in for James Daly, who had broken his arm. Plummer is so expert as Joe Hardy that had I not seen the notice at the auditorium entrance, I never would have thought he has subbed at the last minute. James Daly has proven numerous times what a fine actor he is, but physically Plummer is a much more believable match as the younger version of Shane Carty’s Joe Boyd. Plummer has a lovely pure rounded tone and he is excellent at conveying all the innocence and awkwardness of an older man suddenly revivified in a younger body.

Shane Carty imitated very well the voice, slow thought patterns and movements of the middle-aged, out-of-shape Joe Boyd, especially as one would have conceived of middle-aged men in the 1950s. He makes it fun to see how long it takes for it to dawn on Joe what Mr. Applegate is proposing. Carty also makes Joe’s farewell to Meg, for what could be forever, quite moving.

Mike Nadajewski is an ideal Mr. Applegate. Nadajewski is a master of the ironic tone and doesn’t stint in using it in nearly all of the sly, calculating Applegate’s speeches. The smooth, imperturbable demeanour he lends Mr. Applegate makes it all the more amusing when Applegate loses his composure. It’s a pity the creators give Applegate only one song, and not a very good one at that. In “Those Were The Good Old Days” Applegate recalls the glee he felt at others’ pain, but the examples are so clichéd (and pointedly omits both World Wars), that it simply isn’t clever enough. Nevertheless, Nadajewski delivers the song with all his Danny Kaye-like charm and provides an encore that the audience seems to eat up.

It’s no insult to Kimberley Rampersad to say that she just isn’t the ultimate sexpot that Lola is meant to be. There’s a certain calculatedness to how she sings and moves that makes us feel that Rampersad is more a good person playing at looking evil than actually embodying an demon. This is why Rampersad is best in her duet “Two Lost Souls” with Joe, where Lola gives up her act as a temptress and shows real sympathy for her would-be prey.

Olivia Sinclair-Brisbane is smart, perky and determined as the journalist Gloria. She’s also a fine singer although she has only the one number “Shoeless Joe From Hannibal, Mo”. Sinclair-Brisbane, makes such a positive impression as a fighter against “fake news” that I must admit I had hoped Gloria would prove Joe Hardy was a fraud.

It is great to see Patty Jamieson in a major role in a musical again, here as the long-suffering Meg Boyd. Jamieson brings out the longing in songs like “A Man Doesn’t Know” and “Near To You” that help elevate the character above the stereotype of the perfect housewife.

As the Senators baseball team the ensemble does all the mild horsing around, non-swearing and wolf-whistling that you might expect in the 1950s from a troop of young men on stage. Jay Turvey sings the show big hit “Heart” with a full voice and all the affection the song deserves. His solo turns into a gleeful quartet when he is joined by Connor Lucas as Vernon (formerly Drew Plummer’s role), Kevin McLachlan as Smokey and Andrew Broderick with a bright high tenor as Rocky.

If you’re looking for two hours and forty minutes of mindless amusement at the Shaw Festival, Damn Yankees could be just what you want. It is, however, essentially only a two hit musical (“Heart” and “What Lola Wants”) with a weak plot and an antiquated world view. The cast clearly enjoys what it’s doing, but nothing happens to really bowl you over. With so many greater musicals out there, it’s hard to know why the Shaw chose this one. But if you’ve you always wanted to see Damn Yankees on stage, you’re unlikely to find a better production.

Christopher Hoile

Photo: Drew Plummer as Vernon, Kevin McLachlan as Smokey, Andrew Broderick as Rocky and Jay Turvey as Van Buren; Shane Carty as Joe Boyd and Patty Jamieson as Meg Boyd; Jay Turvey as Van Buren with th ensemble; Mike Nadajewski as Mr. Applegate and Kimberley Rampersad as Lola. © 2022 Michael Cooper.

For tickets visit www.shawfest.com.