Playing Faust Ball: A Review of “Damn Yankees” at Marriott Theatre
“Damn Yankees” was the second hit score—“The Pajama Game” having been the first—by Frank Loesser-protégé Jerry Ross before he died at age twenty-nine of a bronchial infection just six months after its 1955 opening. Veteran Broadway impresario George Abbott directed and wrote the book as he had for “The Pajama Game,” basing “Damn Yankees” on Douglass Wallop’s novel “The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant,” which transposes the Faust legend to mid-twentieth-century baseball.
It was a throwback to the types of musicals popular during the twenties and thirties, but with a tighter narrative and fuller integration of music, lyrics (by Richard Adler) and drama, along with dance being central to the dramaturgy with a young Bob Fosse as choreographer. (“Damn Yankees” was also the first collaboration of Fosse and Gwen Verdon, the original Lola of the show, whom he would marry in 1960.)
It seemed the perfect show to see how Marriott Theatre was faring after the departure of longtime executive producer Terry James. A classic musical that was presented last fall was so amateurishly presented that the artistic future of this venerable venue seemed uncertain. But this wonderful production of “Damn Yankees” indicates that the powers that be are paying attention and making needed changes.
Making his Marriott debut is director James Vásquez, who has found the perfect tone for “Damn Yankees.” Yes, it’s the story of a man so desperate for the Washington Senators to trounce the Yankees that he is willing to sell his soul to do it. But it is also a tender love story where Joe Boyd (Ron E. Rains) and wife Meg (Daniella Dalli) rediscover each other: he, through his younger self as Joe Hardy (Andrew Alstat in a remarkable Marriott debut); she, through old Joe’s absence. When the characterization of both Joes is enacted as seamlessly as it is here, we really do believe that both are the same character.
Along the way, Mr. Applegate (Sean Fortunato) is the devil making the deal who happens to be “good with fire.” It’s a portrayal that refreshingly keeps the comedy but isn’t afraid to be evil when necessary.
The temptress Lola (Michelle Aravena in her Marriott debut) tries her usual seductive bit with choreography by Tyler Hanes (also making his Marriott debut as a choreographer) in “Whatever Lola Wants,” but doesn’t count on falling in love with young Joe because of his devotion to his wife.
Washington team manager Van Buren (Lorenzo Rush Jr.) inspires the players with plenty of “Heart,” while the team itself sings and dances up a storm. The music direction by Noah Landis keeps things moving.