Words and music by Richard Aldler and Jerry Ross
Book by George Abbot and Douglass Wallop
Directed by Chris Cardoni
Music directed by Wayne Ward

Turtle Lane Playhouse, through June 7th, 1998

 Reviewed by G.L. Horton

"Damn Yankees" is a fine fun show that plays today as if it had been tailored for an ambitious semi-professional theatre like the Turtle Lane Playhouse --- rather than for the Great White Way, where it made its debut in 1955.  In fact, I suspect that I might have resisted the musical's simple pleasures if I'd seen it in an earlier incarnation, full of Broadway brass and sass and selling "You Gotta Have Heart" at top prices to smug suburbanites.   But at Turtle Lane, the message isn't at odds with the medium.  "Damn Yankees" is to musicals as baseball is to sports: the players look and behave almost like ordinary Joes.  Just better.

Joe Boyd, the hero, is a couch potato who played baseball in high school and is now a middle-aged real estate salesman who spends six months of every year rooted to the tv set rooting for his favorite team -- the Washington Senators.  Joe hates the New York Yankees, because they are rich and sophisticated and arrogant and they win all the time.  In a moment of fannish passion Joe declares that he'd sell his soul to see the home team beat those damn Yankees  --and the devil, dressed in witty contemporary costumes c. 1955  suitable for a cross between a lounge lizard and a funeral director and calling himself Applegate,  appears to offer Joe a contract. Not only will the Senators beat the Yankees for the pennant, but Joe himself, magically younger and supernaturally skillful, will lead his beloved team to victory.  Joe signs the contract -- but as a salesman himself, he is wiley enough to insist that the soul-sale contract include an escape clause.

Usually, drama is about change -- but Joe doesn't change.  In spite of renewed youth, and fame and fortune and the fulfillment of his dearest wish, he remains the same old good guy, and never gives the devil his due.  It's a perfect fantasy, pure escapism. Along his circular path Joe is parted from his long-suffering wife Meg, and thrown in with the regular guys who are to be his team mates, who welcome him and never seem to be jealous of Joe's rise to idolatry as he leads the team to victory.  Adoring fans pursue him, and when none of the ordinary temptations of success pull Joe from the straight and narrow, the devil sends in his prize temptation, Lola the Irresistible. "Whatever Lola Wants, Lola Gets", sings Jennifer Arnold -- and her dancing makes us believe it.  But Joe doesn't fall, because when he looks at a woman he doesn't see an occasion of sin, but a potential friend.  And Joe's loyalty to his oldest and best friend, his "Old Girl", wife Meg, is stronger than his love of baseball or his fear of hell.

What director Chris Cardoni has achieved with "Damn Yankees" is the most balanced production I've ever seen at Turtle Lane: there are no weak spots.  Meg Boyd is too much of a warm dishrag to properly utilize Susan Walsh's acting range, but Walsh delivers what the script allows.  Susan's in fact off stage husband Chuck Walsh makes a really lovable nonentity out of the supremely decent and boring Joe Boyd, and it is a pleasure to have a leading couple who feel so comfortable and right together. Joe Hardy, the youthful version of the middle-aged hero conjured up by Applegate, is played by gangly, sweetly appealing Tim Coyne.  Coyne makes normal look normative, and is even believable as a healthy clean-minded athlete. (The program says "Tim graduated from Springfield College with a degree in Health Education and Athletic Training".) Every voice in the show is pleasant, everybody sings musically without sounding as if they'd trained and rehearsed endlessly to do so -- ideal for this kind of musical comedy.

Wayne Ward's orchestra is secure enough to comment on the score occasionally as well as play it, and Ward himself also delivers a passable cameo as the baseball commissioner. All the cameo parts are brightly and lightly sketched   Although as far as I'm concerned the show would be stronger without the extraneous limbo "Who's Got the Pain" at the end of Act one, even that is well executed  The men's chorus is wonderful, full of heavenly high spirits and devilish low humor.  The choreography, bits and pieces of warm up exercises, male bonding rowdiness, and cheerleader routines, fits their bodies and personalities perfectly, whether it is borrowed from the  Fosse original or made up under the guiding hand of Turtle Lane's Kenn Matlock. The chorus women haven't much to work with, playing, as they do, fans and neighborhood gossips: but they do it in an infectious spirit of good-humored parody, costumed by Richard Itzak in outrageous exaggerations of frumpy fifties styles.

The star parts  -- Applegate has always been cast with a name comedian, and Lola made Gwen Verdon a star -- have real star power.  Brian Wolfe-Leonard and Jennifer Arnold are almost shockingly good, and their abundant skills threaten at times to throw the appreciative audience right out of the humdrum world of the Boyds and their neighbors and baseball.  Not to mention  Turtle Lane Playhouse.  What are first-class performers doing on that itsy stage, in front of under a hundred people? But when all is said and done, Lola and Applegate are losers.  Underneath the slick Prince of Darkness is an envious creep who could never be Top Banana; underneath The Irresistible Vamp is the ugliest girl in a small town high school.  Wolfe-Leonard and Arnold create characters who know this, and from time to time shrink to just life-size, and so fit on the Turtle Lane stage. Thanks to Ronald Dion's clever use of the limited space, all "Damn Yankee"'s many locations fit on the Turtle Lane stage, too, and even leave room for dancing.  

The last thing I wanted to be told as a kid in those good old days of 1955 was that a sentimental salesman who'd rather yell at the TV than talk to his wife can be a hero, and that romance and supreme accomplishment are a poor second to the comforts of home and companionship.  Especially not by those crass crafters of hit musicals Adler and Ross and Abbott.  (All I had against Wallop and his book was that it was about baseball.  I hated baseball)   Well, I'm older and wiser now,  much more tolerant of innocent merriment, and I'm damn grateful to those guys for putting together the damn good "Damn Yankees",  and to Turtle Lane for putting it on.