Monday, July 30, 2012

Will "Damn Yankees" Hit It Out of the Park for Prairie Fire?

Baseball fans in the 50s knew what it was like to despair of anyone other than the Yankees winning the World Series. Sure, the Dodgers sneaked in there a couple of times, but baseball in the 50s was all Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, Yogi Berra, Joe DiMaggio, Phil Rizzuto... Damn those Yankees, anyway!

That's why a guy named Douglass Wallop came up with a Faustian hook for his novel, "The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant," in which a fed-up Washington Senators fan accepts an offer from a devilish smooth talker named Applegate. If middle-aged nebbish Joe Boyd signs on the dotted line, he will immediately transform into Joe Hardy, an amazing young baseball phenom who can single-handedly turn the Senators into winners. Will Joe sell his soul for a winning baseball team? Or will he find a way to use his exit clause and get back to his wife with his soul intact?

The novel came out in 1954, and was quickly turned into a Broadway musical, with old hand George Abbott and Wallop creating the book, and Richard Adler and Jerry Ross writing music and lyrics. Adler and Ross, proteges of Frank Loesser, were fresh off "The Pajama Game," which had won the 1955 Tony Award for Best Musical. Bob Fosse's "Pajama Game" choreography also won a Tony, and he was in place for "Damn Yankees," as well, working with Gwen Verdon, who was cast as Lola, the sexy siren who tries to tempt Joe Boyd and his younger alter ego, Joe Hardy, into sticking with the devil's bargain.

With Verdon dancing Fosse's choreography in numbers like "Whatever Lola Wants, Lola Gets,""Damn Yankees" was a smash, winning seven Tonys, including Best Musical, Leading Actor (Ray Walston, as Applegate), Leading Actress (Verdon), Featured Actor (Russ Brown as Van Buren, the manager), Featured Actress (Rae Allen as Gloria Thorpe, a sports reporter), and Best Choreography (for Bob Fosse).

The show has been revived on Broadway only once, in 1994, with Victor Garber as the devil and Bebe Neuwirth as Lola, and Jerry Lewis stepping in as a replacement Applegate in his Broadway debut.

With so much dancing, "Damn Yankees" is a bit of a departure for Prairie Fire Theatre, as they tend to err on the side of Gilbert and Sullivan or musical revues. But their singers ought to be able to sell songs like "Heart" and "Whatever Lola Wants" with ease, making their "Damn Yankees" a good bet for baseball fans and musical fans alike.

Jennifer Lumsdon directs these "Yankees," with Kyle Wynn as Mr. Applegate, Whitney Spencer as Lola, Bob Mangialardi and Chris Stanford as Old and Young Joe, Kevin Wickart as Van Buren, Aimee Kerber as Gloria Thorpe, and Stephanie Swearingen as Meg Boyd, the wife Old Joe leaves behind for his baseball dream.

"Damn Yankees" opens August 4th, followed by performances on August 5, 10, 11, and 12. Friday and Saturday performances begin at 7:30 pm, with a 3 pm curtain for Sunday matinees.

For all the details, you can visit Prairie Fire's "Damn Yankees" Facebook page, or their website, which now has a reservation option, as well.


  1. Not exactly a revival, but a rendition in NYC worth mentioning was its appearance as the second of Encores!'s "Summer Stars at Encores" (slightly fuller productions and longer runs) in 2008. It was preceded by "Gypsy" and followed by "The Wiz," and apparently the series is not being continued.

    It had Jane Krakowski as Lola, Sean Hayes as Applegate, and Cheyenne Jackson as Joe. The original Fosse choreography was reproduced, which as maybe a mistake -- "in the style of" might have suited Ms. Krakowski better. But it was still great fun, and the moment old Joe transformed into young Joe got a huge laugh. Because, yeah, if men got their youth back, wouldn't we all like to return in the shape of Cheyenne Jackson?

  2. A lot of people seemed to prefer the Encores! version of the show to the 94 one, which apparently made major book and song order changes. I saw it in 94 on a night Michael Beresse stood in for Jarrod Emick, which was disconcerting, since the short, small, dark-haired guy on stage bore no resemblance to the tall, broad-shouldered blond in the posters that dropped to show us that Joe Hardy had become famous and was doing toothpaste and cereal ads. It was a major misfire in production values, as far as I'm concerned, since they could have foreseen the necessity of an understudy going on and either matched the understudy physically to Jarrod Emick or created other posters for Understudy Night. Preferably the former.

    In any event, Cheyenne Jackson is about as perfect an example of Joe Hardy, beautiful baseball player, as I can imagine.

    Victor Garber was okay, but nothing special, and Bebe Neuwirth's somewhat chilly persona wasn't exactly right for Lola, either. I think you can tell that production did not hit on all cylinders for me. Although I still think it's odd "Damn Yankees" has only had two Broadway (proper) runs.