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Dynamic Marriott ‘Damn Yankees’ Hits One out of the Ballpark

You know you’re in for a grand night of theatre when you get to your seat, and you open the program and you see the cast is a who’s who of your favorite performers. Such was the case when I sat down to enjoy Marriott Theatre’s new thrilling production of Damn Yankees.

Damn Yankees is a musical theater standard, guaranteed to attract audiences. Once you get those patrons in the door, it’s up to the artistic staff and their team of performers to make the magic happen.

For its production of Damn Yankees, Marriott Theatre has pulled out all the stops – bringing in Broadway sensation Michelle Aravena as temptress Lola and a host of Chicago’s most celebrated musical theater stars to round out the cast. The result is a toe-tapping delight that will put a smile on your face and a song in your heart.

Damn Yankees is a lighthearted musical based on the novel The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant. It features words and music by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross and a book by George Abbott and Douglass Wallop.

The story is about a lifelong baseball fan whose adoration of the Washington Senators leads him to make a deal with the devil, in exchange for his soul Joe can become young again and be the star player who leads the Senators past dreaded archrivals the New York Yankees to win the pennant. Being musical theater, it in infused with a great deal of humor, song, and dance.

The musical premiered on Broadway in 1955, going on to win multiple Tony awards including Best Musical, Best Leading Actress for Gwen Verdon, Best Leading Actor for Ray Walston, Best Featured Actor for Russ Brown, and Best Choreography by Bob Fosse.

Fosse did indeed leave his mark on the musical. Although the music is catchy and the dialog interesting, because of Fosse’s involvement in its creation, Damn Yankees will forever be known as a dance show.

For the Marriott production, choreographer Tyler Hanes translates Fosse’s intent and style with his own creativity and the result is some amazing dance. Aravena’s footwork and the precision of the entire dance ensemble are incredible. A special acknowledgement goes to Ben Broughton who plays ball player Rocky. His overall dance skills and special talents with a jump rope are jaw dropping.

The entire ensemble is phenomenal. The ballplayers are all believable actors with different specialties in dance and song that director James Vásquez blends together well. In fact, Vásquez’s overall command of the show is about as near perfect as one can come in a theater-in-the-round setting.

As the central character of Damn Yankees, Marriott Theatre newcomer Andrew Alstat is a breath of fresh air as Joe Hardy. He has boy-next-door charm and a rich, beautiful voice. He is fun and endearing and you can’t help but like him.

No deal with the devil story is complete without the devil himself. Welcome Sean Fortunato as Applegate, this tale’s comical dark lord. Fortunato is a masterful song and dance man, but what makes him really excel in this production are his comedic skills. His Applegate features elements of such character actors as Alan Cumming, Mandy Patinkin, John Turturro, and Jeff Goldblum. He is a riot and a true force to be reckoned with.

Leading the hapless Washington Senators is Coach Van Buren, played with scenery chewing gusto by Lorenzo Rush Jr. Rush is one of those performers who is simply fun to watch. He throws himself completely into his characters. The physicality of the baseball signals he uses to communicate with his players is absolutely hysterical.

For the devil to turn a middle aged baseball fan into 22 years-old athlete Joe Hardy, there has to be an old Joe from which to start the transition. Here, the character is played with great emotion by Ron E. Rains. Opposite Rains as his adoring wife of decades Meg Boyd is Daniella Dalli, who won a Jeff Award for her performance in Marriott’s The Sound of Music.

The conflict in Damn Yankees comes from Joe missing his wife Meg and wanting to give up his dreams of baseball and being young to return to the quiet suburban life he enjoyed. That requires a Meg who would inspire that kind of love that transcends time and space.

Dalli is a personal favorite of mine, and she does not disappoint in this role. She offers the perfect storybook persona and a voice from heaven.

Erica Stephan is another favorite featured in Marriott’s Damn Yankees. Stephan plays Gloria Thorpe, the super-fan reporter dead set on exposing the secrets behind the mysterious Shoeless Joe Hardy. She’s a great triple threat performer who is always a joy to witness. Seeing her perform will turn you into an instant fan.

Rounding out the leads is Jonah D. Winston as Senators owner Mr. Welsch. Winston is another Chicago favorite and he shows why with a wonderfully solid character.

The remaining ensemble includes Brian Bandura, Lydia Burke, Dan Gold, Brooke Henderson, Christopher Kale Jones, Heidi Kettenring, Ron King, Michael Kingston, Sam Linda, Garrett Lutz, Thomas Ortiz, Daniela Rodrigo, Sam Rohloff, Concetta Russo, and swings Madison Sheward and Matthew Weidenbener.  They are all exceptional individually and as a whole.

Costume design at Marriott is typically wonderful, and Theresa Ham maintains that perfect batting average. Lighting design by Jesse Klug definitely adds to the experience, as does scenic design by Regina Garcia. Sound design by Michael Daly, properties design by Sally Zack, and wig design by Miquel A. Armstrong are all well done. Music direction by Ryan T. Nelson is always impressive and Noah Landis is in fine form as conductor.