If you think last month's bout of Lin-sanity was bad (you remember, Jeremy Lin of Harvard causing a sensation as a high-scoring player for the New York Knicks basketball team), get a load of what's going on with the 1955 Washington Senators baseball team now in residence at the Paper Mill Playhouse in a sparkling production of Damn Yankees! (All photos by Ken Jacques)
With music and lyrics by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, and a book by George Abbott and Douglass Wallop, this vintage piece of musical theater captures a more innocent time when baseball was really the national pastime and fans lived and died by their team's place in the standings. In this case, it's the hapless Washington Senators who are in seventh place with no chance of winning the pennant, especially when they have to face their nemesis, the dreaded damn Yankees, without a reliable hitter on the roster. Plenty of players able to catch, but none can really hit the ball out of the ballpark.
With a nod to the German, legend of Faust, the scholar who sold his soul to the Devil for unlimited knowledge, the script posits what would happen if a middle-aged Senators fan, Joe Boyd, colluded with a mysterious man named Applegate to become young Joe Hardy, long-ball hitter and mighty thrower extraordinaire. Of course, matters seem to progress swimmingly as the Senators beat the Yankees and Hardy fever sets in, that is, until Joe Hardy, homesick for his suburban Maryland home and loving wife, attempts to invoke an escape clause Applegate has uncharacteristically agreed to. The resulting hi-jinks are comedic, yet sobering, as they question the value of fame and the importance of love in a man's life.
On a terrific set designed by Rob Bissinger, Director Mark S. Hoebee niftily marshals his large cast through several complex production numbers choreographed beautifully by Denis Jones (Bob Fosse was the musical's original choreographer when the play opened in 1955), several lovely duets, and the de rigueur star turn similar to "Steam Heat" in Pajama Game penned by Adler and Ross in 1954. His cast is handsome and accomplished in both singing and dancing; the acting is a bit over the top as befits the American musical comedy, but everyone appears to be having a great time as is the audience.
Going from “pinch-hitter to idol of the nation" in one month and batting .480, the adorable Christopher Charles Wood (below, left)is wonderful as Joe Hardy. His strong baritone ably conveys the longing for his wife Meg as he contemplates that "A Man Doesn't Know" what he has until he loses it. His naiveté is no match, of course, for Howard McGillin's lip-smacking epitome of evil, Applegate, a k a the Devil (left). Pulling a cigarette from mid-air, gnashing his teeth, making his protégés Lola and Joe toe the line, or singing about “The Good Old Days,” he's the man you love to hate. And Alejo Vietti has dressed him in red and black suits and jackets to reinforce the man's malevolence.
Rounding out the trio is Chryssie Whitehead (right) as the sinuous temptress Lola, whom Applegate unleashes on Hardy to keep the straying ball player in line. With her long, lean dancer's body, Whitehead is riveting every time she appears onstage, whether it's wrapping her torso and legs around Joe or dancing the mambo madly in "Who's Got the Pain," a number that has nothing to do with the plot but gives her the chance to show off her dancing and singing chops. And she certainly is hot warbling about "Whatever Lola Wants" (Lola Gets) or how she uses her talents to drag her victims down the primrose path to Hell.
Joseph Kolinski is fine as Joe Boyd, as is Ray DeMattis as the avuncular Senators' manager Van Buren. Just watching the latter demonstrate batting signals to a dim player is a real hoot! Giving Whitehead a run for her money, Nancy Anderson (center, left) lights up the stage as Gloria Thorpe, snooping girl reporter intent on discovering just who this Joe Hardy really is. She's relentless, and her energetic dancing will wear you out just watching her! Patti Cohenour's Meg is maternal, yet spousal, as she deals with the two Joes, Boyd and Hardy, communicating her missing her husband very well. And Susan Mosher and Jill Abramovitz are display rubber faces (and legs) and great comedic timing as Meg's friends who really go gaga over the latest baseball sensation. They are victims of Hardy-insanity! And Gary Lynch is all business as Senators’ owner Welch.
Special congratulations go to Alejo Vietti for colorful, era-appropriate costumes, Tom Sturge's lighting, Randy Hansen's sound and Charles LaPointe's wigs and hair design. They really put the icing on this blockbuster of a musical comedy cake!
The rousing anthem, "Heart," sung by the Senators players (right) to boost their team's dwindling spirit really conveys what this stellar production has in spades: heart! It is only the third musical number out of a total of 15, but “Heart” sets the mood for the rest of the show. Damn Yankees may be a musical comedy from another era, the Washington Senators are now known as the Texas Rangers and baseball may no longer be the only American pastime, but one just has to recall the current Boston Red Sox-New York Yankees rivalry to understand the hold the sport had over America in the 1950's. People listened to games on the radio, went to the stadiums to watch them and were mightily affected by the fluctuating fortunes of their favorite team.
Paper Mill Playhouse's production of Damn Yankees is a valentine to that era and theatrical genre. It is great fun for all, young and old. In fact, the young woman who accompanied me to the theater really enjoyed herself, even though she was born in the 1960s! For sheer theatrical joy, buy a ticket to the game and root for your favorite player (or actor as the case may be).
Damn Yankees (the title is the curse that calls in the Devil) will be performed at the Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn, through Sunday, April 1. For tickets and information, call the box office at 973.376.4343 or visit online at www.papermill.org.