Sunday, July 27, 2008

City Center Scores with Damn Yankees

There are some musicals that stand the test of time and therefore, I suppose, are called classic. The classic musical comedy Damn Yankees has been once revived on Broadway and yesterday ended its three week run as part of NY City Center Encores! Summer Stars series. I must say, of the many old school musicals that I've grown (sometimes kicking and screaming) to appreciate, this is one that I actually like.

My first introduction to Damn Yankees was via the 1958 film starring Ray Walston and Gwen Verdon, who both received the 1956 Tony for their peformances in the Broadway production. Even as a tween, before I had the good sense to revere Bob Fosse for the genius that he is, I fell in love with the choreography. By the time Broadway got around to reviving it in 1994, I was well-versed with Fosse's body of work and I was anxious to see the show staged.

The revival did not disappoint. I saw it twice - the first time with Victor Garber and Bebe Neuwirth and the second with their successors Jerry Lewis and Charlotte d'Amboise. Victor and Bebe were great, Jerry and Charlotte not so much. But despite his scenery gnawing and her bland performance, I still enjoyed it the second time around.

A couple of years ago, I stage managed a production of Damn Yankees. These days, stage managing is something I rarely do. However, if it is a show I really like or it gives me the opportunity to work with specific directors, I will dust off my stage manager's kit and take on the task. In this instance, both criteria applied.

When word hit the streets that Sean Hayes and Jane Krakowski would be headlining in Damn Yankees at NY City Center, I rung up the director of the aforementioned production and an outing was planned. Uncle Brad, as many affectionately call my director friend, is someone whose work and creative mind commands my deepest respect. Being able to see the show with my husband and kids and then being able to deconstruct it with Uncle Brad was a delight in and of itself. The fact that it was a stellar production was simply the icing on the cake of an already great experience.

Sean Hayes, of course, is noted for his Emmy winning turn as Jack McFarland on the hit sitcom Will & Grace. His New York theatre debut as Mr. Applegate has certainly proven the actor worthy of a Broadway run some time in the future. Musical comedy is a genre he is unsurprisingly suited for and a transfer of Damn Yankees, much in the vain of City Center's Gypsy, would not surprise me (although it has not, as yet, been rumored).

Hayes is a solid actor and he used just the right dose of Jackisms in his Applegate. The hissy fits that we loved in Jack are perfectly suited for those had by Applegate. In this production it worked to crowd-pleasing effect. Hayes also proved himself vocally strong in his self-accompanied showstopping number "Those Were The Good Old Days". After an appreciative fan whistled from the crowd, Hayes, a classically trained pianist, took a beat, leaned out and whispered: "I'm really playing." And he was. To an audience that was loving every minute of it.

I've long been a fan of Jane Krakowski's and was pleased to see her team up with Hayes to take on the Herculean task of filling the role that was immortalized by Gwen Verdon. Jane's got some formidable vocal chops and comic skills - which I've known since her Ally McBeal days. Known most recently from her role as Jenna Maroney on 30 Rock, Krakowski is a decent enough dancer but I felt there was something off during her big dance numbers. During intermission, Uncle Brad told me that Fosse choreographed very distinctly for the body and that nowadays dancers are so waifish that some of it just doesn't work. Gwen Verdon had a little meat on her bones, so when she was jiggling and grinding it just suited her better (and I mean that in the nicest of ways). I would have to say that I agree with Uncle Brad on this one. Man that bastard is smart.

The below-the-title actors were no hacks either: Cheyenne Jackson, Randy Graff, Megan Gallagher (who replaced the injured Ana Gasteyer), Veanne Cox and Michael Mulheren. Not a bad supporting cast, eh?

Cheyenne Jackson was an amiable Young Joe Hardy and it was nice to see him have the opportunity to work with Krakowski (who vacated the role of Kira/Clio in Xanadu after her sitcom got picked up). He has a kick ass voice, is not a bad dancer and undeniably easy to look at (many in our party agreed that spending a little more time in his undershorts during the locker scene would have been all right with us).

Tony winner Randy Graff brings the right amount of heartbreak and devotion to Meg, the wife that's been left behind during his stint as a Washington Senators champion. Megan Gallagher's nosy reporter Gloria Thorpe lacked the necessary spunk that role needs to be endearing. Veanne Cox was perfection as Sister and Michael Mulheren's Coach Vanburen led the well-known "Heart" number to enthusiastic response. Veanne and Michael, however, shone the brightest at the stage door after the show.

My girls know Veanne from Disney's remake of Rodgers & Hammerstein's Cinderella, in which she played one of Cinderella's stepsisters. My eldest told me later that when she met Veanne she felt like she was meeting a movie star! My husband and I mentioned how we had seen Cinderella many times and how much we loved it. Veanne was very appreciative of the permanence of film and at the same time a bit nostalgic about the fleetingness of theatre. She did affirm one of my pillar convictions: the importance of bringing children to theatre so that this art form does not die. She was definitely a cool chiquita banana!

Michael Mulheren also took the time to chat with the girls about the show and asked them where they were from. When they replied, he just looked at them and said, "Danbury! I've worked there!" And indeed he had... Apparently he did Pirates of Penzance at Candlewood Playhouse with my friend Kevin. Oh the theatre and its players comprise a small world indeed!

Having now seen professional productions of both the original and revival scripts of Damn Yankees, I have to say that there were things from the revival that I missed. I like the "Blooper Ballet" as a way of introducing the Washington Senators "in action". And, like my friend Brad, I prefer "Heart" to be sung by ALL of the ball players instead of just VanBuren and the Quartet. Finally, while I enjoyed seeing Fosse's beatnicky choreography performed by Jackson and Krakowski in "Two Lost Souls", I prefer that number to be performed by Applegate and Lola. It gives Applegate another song in the show (which I would have liked to have seen) and it allows Joe Hardy to maintain his devotion to Meg by eliminating the kiss between him and Lola.

Both versions of the musical, however, have the same strong story at its core. It is the story where good triumphs over evil, where the underdog team wins the prize and the boy gets the girl. Throw in a good Republican joke, a seductress in her underwear and a Fosse jig and you've got an All-American musical sure to please for years to come!

Related Articles:
New York Times: Selling His Soul For The Part
New York Daily News: Damn Yankees Had Some Great Runs Bottom of the Ninth: Damn Yankees Ends City Center Run July 27
New York Newsday Review: Damn Yankees At City Center Encores!



Esther said...

What a great review. It sound terrific. I'm so jealous of all the great theater in New York this summer that I'm missing! I'm so glad you brought the girls. They must have loved it. You are a cool mom!

Regina said...

Fosse's dancers were also usually tall and long legged.

Some small dancers can fake tall and some can't.

Maybe Bebe can fake it and Jane can't?