The Devil is in the details

Damn Yankees 8_DavidAllenBy Ande Jacobson

The boys of summer keep the balls flying and the bats swinging, and Foothill Music Theatre combines with Foothill College Theatre Arts to capture the spirit of baseball in their energetic production of a longtime Broadway favorite, Damn Yankees. Director Tom Gough has large shoes to fill as he grabs the reins after Foothill Music Theatre thrived under its originator, Jay Manley, for over 30 years. This year for the first summer production under his guidance, Gough states in his program notes that he gravitated toward a show that combined three of his favorite things: baseball, live theatre, and the Faust legend. Gough’s drive and love of the theatre program have kept the FMT summer tradition alive for audiences to enjoy.

Damn Yankees made its Broadway debut in 1955, and it’s never lost its appeal. Now a period piece set in the 1950’s in the heyday of the New York Yankees’ reign over the baseball world, it tells the story of an overzealous Washington Senators fan who would “sell his soul” for an American League Pennant win over the Yankees.

Selling one’s soul to the Devil for a chance at a dream is certainly an old theme. In this incarnation, Joe Boyd (Matt Tipton) meets the “modern” Mephistopheles when the hypnotically charming Mr. Applegate (Jeff Clarke) appears on Joe’s porch one evening after yet another Washington Senator loss.  For the cost of his eternal soul, Applegate offers Joe the chance to live his dream as a baseball star who can bring the Senators their long awaited championship. An enticing proposition to be sure, and through the magic of musical theatre, voila!  Out pops the 22-year-old Joe, Joe Hardy (Daniel Mitchell), but there must be a catch.

There’s much to like about this production. After a baseball-themed announcement by an on-stage umpire, Catherine Snider’s orchestra begins playing Richard Adler and Jerry Ross’s sprightly Overture.  The lush sound draws us in and sets the scene with tastes of most of the music to come. While there were a few small missteps during some of the transitions opening night, the overall sound is rich and full. As a reed player, this reviewer has a special appreciation for the woodwind featured orchestration.

In the first scene, we meet Joe in his living room watching the game on television. He’s fully engrossed while his long-suffering wife Meg (Mary Melnick) is completely ignored. Melnick plays a very sympathetic Meg and delivers several songs that fit her range extremely well. She’s lonesome and loving as she sings a heartfelt “Six Months Out of Every Year” lamenting the half year when her husband is tied to the TV, completely consumed by baseball. Tipton is convincing as the archetypical fan, leaning into every play as he watches the action. The ensemble insertion into the latter part of the opening number is invigorating, well timed, and vocally stirring.

Clarke is charming, smooth, and devious as the debonair Applegate. He switches “character” but stays recognizable to the audience as he plays his various tricks. In this production, the Devil’s sleight of hand is underplayed, but Clarke handles it with flair. He’s suave but never gentle, and he maintains an impish edge to his performance delivering the humor in his role without descending into pure camp. He makes his deal with Joe, and the transformation occurs through the song “Goodbye Old Girl”. Neither Tipton nor Mitchell is really a tenor, and the song is a tad high for them both though they sing with vigor and make a good show of it.

The ballplayers are energetic and very enthusiastic. Many are athletes, baseball players in fact, and their baseball moves are authentic, but they aren’t dancers. Katie O’Bryon’s choreography follows the Fosse style in many respects, but for some numbers, notably “Heart” and “Shoeless Joe”, the ballplayers’ execution isn’t clean. In “Shoeless Joe”, when the women’s dance corps enters, the execution is much crisper.

As Joe Hardy sails to top of the tabloids, Applegate is forced to bring in his top “home wrecker” Lola (Jen Wheatonfox). Lola is sexy, sassy, but she has a heart of gold, and Wheatonfox clearly has fun with this role. She has a pleasant voice as she delivers her numbers, one of them with a faux Latin accent in a classic seduction scene with Mitchell. The two of them provide some delightful comedy in that sequence, the cat never quite catching the mouse.

Act 2 goes fairly quickly with some key plot developments and a poignant resolution.  After the Entr’acte, “The Game” is a rousing players’ number that focuses the team on the game at hand. It bustles with energy at a lively tempo, but some of the players’ lyrics don’t quite keep up and are a bit behind. Also, the final vocal chord smacks of dissonance when it should be a clean Major 6th.

“Near to You” is bittersweet and very well done. Both Melnick and Mitchell capture the longing that Meg and Joe feel for their old lives.

One musical number stands out above all the rest – Act 2’s “Two Lost Souls”. This is a Fosse-style special and it’s wonderfully dark, suggestive, and slightly dangerous. The music and vocals are edgy in a good way, and the dance matches the musical tone nicely as the dancers slide and slither about.

Margaret Toomey’s scenic design is functional and fairly easy to transform.  As written, the show is intended to make use of a downstage drop allowing for some action to continue during some of the longer scene changes behind the curtain, and Toomey keeps this motif intact. The main sets include the Boyd’s living room and front porch, a practical locker room but with only 8 locker slots across the stage (guess a couple of players have to double up), a dugout paired with a small section of stands, and stadium lights upstage right and left that are always there. On opening night, while it wasn’t clear if it was by design or a bulb burned out unexpectedly, one of the stadium lights upstage right was out.

Lighting designer Edward Hunter provides subtle lighting shifts and some delightful commercial projections on the downstage drop. Ken Kilen’s sound design has some issues. Not all of the ballplayers have microphones and some of the sound cues are late so that various solo vocals are sometimes dropped. Also, there’s a volume problem with a few of the sound effects such as the bat crack sounding more like a gunshot than a hit and some “loudspeaker” announcements in the stadium scenes where “loud” is the operative word.

In spite of some deficiencies, this is a feel-good show that leaves the audience humming and provides an enjoyable evening’s entertainment.  It’s less polished than FMT summer shows have been in the past, but what it lacks in finesse, it makes up for with “miles ‘n’ miles ‘n’ miles of heart.”

What:  Damn Yankees

Where:  Smithwick Theatre, Foothill College, 12345 El Monte Road, Los Altos, CA 94022

When:  Continues through 18 August 2013, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8PM, and Sundays at 2PM.

See www.foothillmusicals.com or call (650)949-7360 for tickets or more information.

(Photo courtesy of Foothill Music Theatre)

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