By Bill Hirschman
If you’re younger than Boomers and you wonder what it precisely felt like seeing a Broadway musical in the 1950s, or if you’re older than Boomers and you yearn for what you saw in the 1950s, then take full advantage of the time machine humming at the Wick Theatre, a satisfyingly faithful revival of Damn Yankees.
There’s the joy infused in ebullient production numbers whose sole dramaturgical purpose is to entertain. There are touching ballads unabashedly meant to burrow into hearts. And there is an indefatigable enthusiasm pouring off the stage sending the message, “We’re having a hell of a good time and you ought to unwind and have one too.”
Damn Yankees is a classic example of the deceptively well-crafted musical version of a “well-made play” that was meant to divert the tired businessman audience of New York City in the Eisenhower Era — light years from Stephen Sondheim and Lin-Manuel Miranda, but inarguably laudable on its own merits. The show has never been a home run, but it is the kind of long fly to the bleachers when you watch a team of pin-striped athletes high-stepping to infectious hoedown music using bats instead of gentlemen’s canes.
This tongue-in-cheek spin on the Faust legend focuses on Joe Boyd, a real estate salesman and late middle age devotee of the basement-dragging Washington Senators baseball team. He sells his soul to devilish “Mr. Applegate” for a stretch as the star player that the team needs to beat the hated New York Yankees for the championship.
Boyd is transformed into 22-year-old hunk Joe Hardy, an unknown rookie endowed with supernatural prowess. But as he leads the team to victories, the young man keeps going back home incognito to visit his beloved and inexplicably loyal wife Meg to whom he had never explained where he was going.
To keep Joe on the hook (Joe negotiated an “escape clause” just like a real estate deal), Applegate enlists the allurements of gorgeous vamp Lola, actually a 178-year-old witch from Providence. Sure enough, the Senators close in on the Yankees, but Applegate has a trick up his red spangled sleeve to scotch Joe Hardy’s escape from damnation.
The script is based on Douglas Wallop’s 1954 novel The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant, co-written for the stage by the fabled director George Abbott.
The winning 1955 score full of lively melody and witty lyrics was written by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, fresh off The Pajama Game. (Ross died of a heart attack the same year, ending what might have become a Lerner-and-Loewe-level legend.) Abbott directed, up and coming Bob Fosse was the choreographer, Ray Walston played the devil and his vamp Lola played by equally up and coming Gwen Verdon (who hooked up with Fosse during the run).
This production, which happily embraces the theatrical tropes and social attitudes of the era, is helmed by Jeffrey B. Moss who has previously directed this show and nearly every other major title in the Broadway musical canon. The triple play is completed with veteran musical director Eric Alsford molding the vocals of an innately talented corps and Jerel Brown mixing his own choreographic steps with recognizable Fosse moves.
Once again, this is unfairly delaying acknowledging the show’s obvious MVPs. At bat are two star performances from actors seemingly born to play their roles and visibly savoring the opportunity: Wayne LeGette glowing as the sophisticatedly manipulative Applegate, and Lauren Weinberg as the lust-inducing Lola.
We’ve been happily watching LeGette nail roles in this region for more decades than either of us would like to admit with two Carbonell Awards and seven nominations earned in dramas, comedies and musicals such as Nathan Detroit in the Wick’s Guys and Dolls.
But this martini-smooth conniver is the perfect match for his resonant, rich voice and smooth mien whether seducing Joe like an effective Ponzi salesman, or glorying in the showstopping comedy number “The Good Old Days” (with the funniest lyrics in the show). Watch his grin as Applegate shoots a flash of fire from his hand to light the cigarette that magically appears in his hand.
Just as fine is Lauren Weinberg as the sensuous Lola who can be hilariously over the top as the Latin seductress in the classic “Whatever Lola Wants,” or dancing the Fosse-inspired talent show mambo “Who’s Got the Pain” or showing Lola’s gentler side in “Two Lost Souls.” Weinberg, who has a glorious clarion voice, has done several shows here, most memorably as Adelaide alongside LeGette in Guys and Dolls.
These two alone are worth the ticket.
Jeffrey Keller with a strong leading man voice does a solid enough job with the never convincingly-written role of Joe Hardy.
Special credit goes to Aaron Bower who burned down the house last month as Reno Sweeney in the Wick’s Anything Goes. Here she has to play the unbelievably faithful and trusting wife Meg whose loyalty lasts through the unexplained multi-month disappearance of her husband. In 2023, she rightfully would kick him in the crotch and leave. Bower not only makes Meg’s devotion credible but enviable. And the way she achieves this is inhabiting those feelings when she sings love duets with the old and young Joe – moments that in other productions are just so-so, but here are genuinely moving because she’s an actress who sings.
Then give a victory lap to Paul Louis (the procurer in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and uppercrust English gentleman in Anything Goes) as the team coach Van Buren whose unfailing energy leads the team in the enthusiastic “(You’ve Gotta Have) Heart,” a number which in lesser productions falls flat but here jazzes up the audience. A nod, too, for Mychal Phillips as Gloria the reporter trying to get to the bottom of Joe’s non-existent past.
The large ensemble is engaging from the cartoonish team members down to swing performer Abigail Curran who had to pop in last Saturday to fill out the nine-member ballclub due to a Covid absence.
The scenic design by Johnne Blessed encompasses a significant amount of scene setting by Josieu T. Jean’s projections of the ballpark and a Chevy Chase neighborhood, plus newsreel footage of actual games. The sound design is pristine from Zachariah Rosenbaum, and applaud the overall production stage managing by Jeffry George,
As always for this troupe situated next door to a costume museum, the outfits are period perfect and Applegate’s array is memorable down to the ever-changing vests.
This production has been on the Wick’s drawing board four years, twice delayed by Actors Equity Association rules limiting cast sizes during the Covid pandemic.
Damn Yankees plays through March 26 at The Wick Theatre, 7901 North Federal Highway, Boca Raton. Performances 2 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday, Sunday; 7:30 p.m., Thursday, Friday, Saturday. Runs 2 ½ hours including one intermission. For tickets, visit www.thewick.org or 561-995-2333