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Review: In ‘Damn Yankees’ at the Marriott Theatre, old-fashioned heart means more than hitting

Somewhere on the drive out to the Marriott Theatre Wednesday afternoon for the Faustian 1955 musical comedy “Damn Yankees,” the devilish figure of Jerry Lewis popped into the center lane of my consciousness, reminding me of his unforgettable 1994 touring performance as Mr. Applegate, aka Beelzebub himself.

If memory serves, Lewis, who floated diabolically around the Shubert Theatre, made his first appearance in one of the box seats. He delivered maybe 10% of the lines penned for the role by George Abbott and Douglass Wallop. The rest was, well, let’s call it improvisation in a tour also noteworthy for how the players of the Washington Senators disrobed at every opportunity in an attempt to juice up the proceedings for the benefit of the box office.

Nothing of the like occurs at the Marriott Theatre, which also produced this rarely-seen title back in 2002. That was another production I remember, starring the Broadway actor Sean Allen Krill as Joe Hardy, the younger version of Joe Boyd, the man who sells his soul to the devil in order to become youthful again and a great hitter for the Senators. Paula Scrofano played the loyal wife he leaves behind.

But this zesty new 2023 production, directed by James Vásquez, has an admirable crackle of the bat, some witty, fresh-facing choreography from Tyler Hanes and, yet more importantly, a pair of musically adroit lead performances that remind us, as the famous song goes, of the abiding musical truth that “all you really need is heart.”

That work comes from Andrew Alstat, a performer I’ve not seen work before but a whopping talent, and from the highly experienced Danielle Dalli, who shook the very heavens, or at least those dozing in their hotel rooms, as the Mother Abbess in last year’s Marriott production of “The Sound of Music.”

Great musicals often promise some version of immortality, or at least insist that death merely is transformation. So it goes here. Joe (the, ahem, older version is richly played by Ron E. Rains) spends his days shouting at the Senators to rise up and beat the detested Yankees. Applegate (Sean Fortunato) shows up to grant him his wish and make him a young heavy-hitter forever, but dramatic tension flows from Joe’s savvy negotiation of an escape clause that comes into effect on the day of the Senators’ last game of the season. In fact, Joe misses his wife. But Applegate brings in the vampish “home wrecker” Lola (Michelle Aravena), a “woman from Chicago” who the devil hopes will seduce Joe into never going home, being as whatever Lola wants, Lola gets.

Amid all those mid-1950s shenanigans, you get one of Broadway’s great jazzy scores from Richard Alder and Jerry Ross, a song suite from which many vocalists peeled off standards: “Heart,” “Goodbye Old Girl” and, of course, “Lola,” a number covered so many times over so many years, few even remember it came from this show. The musical direction from Ryan T. Nelson has the most pizzazz of any recent show at the Marriott, partly due to the singular orchestrations, of course, but also the right spirit of fun.

I mostly enjoyed Fortunato and the dancing of Aravena, as well as Erica Stephan, who plays the sports reporter who tries to rumble Joe’s game, but those elements of the show are the hardest to pull off these days for all kinds of reasons and not all the gags land. This production wisely roots itself on the real affection felt between two small-town, middle-aged folks, penned to be stand-ins for the 1950s Broadway audience, of course.

Both Alstat and Dalli are just lovely in this show and you really pull for their marriage, which is the key to a decent “Damn Yankees” in any season.

The mostly older team at my matinee pulled a little closer together. Play ball.

3 stars