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Monday, April 30, 2012

Review of "DAMN YANKEES" -- a Home Run for The 5th Avenue Theatre

You don't have to be a baseball fan to love Damn Yankees at Seattle's 5th Avenue Theatre, but you might become one just by buying a ticket. Get yours now, before this fun, funny, and sometimes touching musical sells out or ends its April 21-May 20 run.

Mr. Applegate (Hans Altwies) and Lola (Chryssie Whitehead) in Damn Yankees at The 5th Avenue Theatre.
Photo: Chris Bennion

The 5th Avenue's Executive Producer and Artistic Director David Armstrong said in a press release, "Damn Yankees is one of the great musicals of the Golden Era of Broadway. We’re very excited to bring this show to our stage for the first time, complete with major league talent from a mix of Broadway and Seattle musical theater all-stars." (You can read all about the cast and creative team here.)

When Armstrong introduced this show on opening night, he did look excited. Now I know why. Putting together a winning team matters just as much in musical theater as in baseball, and the creative team for this co-production with Paper Mill Playhouse was destined to be a winner. Directed by Paper Mill's Producing Artistic Director Mark S. Hoebee, with musical direction by Ben Whiteley and choreography by Denis Michael Jones, it's a hit Seattle will remember. 

I'll remember the choreography. It connects with the music like a bat with a ball, so natural and believable, rather than stereotypical, in every case—from Lola's sexy maneuvers to the masculine mannerisms of the baseball players in the locker room. And they aren't the only athletes. When vivacious news reporter, Gloria Thorpe (Nancy Anderson) does a dance routine with the team, she might have come straight from spring training, leaping, swinging, and holding a baseball bat with just the right stance and style. On the night I was there, she even tossed in Ichiro's Suzuki's habitual tug on the shoulder seam, a gesture not lost on Mariners fans. Very fun! Let's hear it for Dance Captain David Alewine too. There isn't a wasted motion anywhere, with every step and gesture clean and precise.

Sound Designer Andrew G. Luft  more than met the challenge of all the special effects in this musical, putting the outstanding orchestra to good use. The perfect percussion here and well-place slide of the trombone there makes it all come to life and lighting by Tom Sturge creates the ambiance.

Gloria Thorpe (Nancy Anderson, center) and the company of Damn Yankees at The 5th Avenue Theatre.
Photo: Chris Bennion

The story
While many might see nothing deeper in Damn Yankees than a rollicking good time here, the book by George Abbott and Douglas Wallop, and music and lyrics by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, contain classic and meaningful themes. Just like in The Wizard of Oz, we're reminded that "There's no place like home." Many people can relate to the idea of unfulfilled dreams, temptations, and regrets. We are reminded that choices carry consequences and lies create complications.
 The story begins with over-the-hill Joe Boyd (Hugh Hastings) at home watching baseball with emotion and animation, because his team is losing again. He ignores his wife, Meg (Patti Cohenour) who sits on the couch and sews, feeling like a baseball widow. Their 1950s house is not shown, but simply implied. We can't see any TV, but can hear the game. The open skeleton of the structure  literally frames the scene and allows us a look inside at the living room furniture, fireplace, and stairs. And through the freestanding front door, magic happens. I mean magic. The audience let out an audible gasp at one point, but I won't spoil the surprise for you.

The company of Damn Yankees at The 5th Avenue Theatre.
Photo: Chris Bennion

Boyd is a die-hard fan of the Washington Senators baseball team, the worst in the league. Frustrated, he declares that he'd sell his soul to the devil if it meant his beloved Senators could beat the damn Yankees! And that is exactly what happens. Right on cue, the devil himself shows up in the form of "Mr. Applegate" (Hans Altwies) but it doesn't take Boyd long to realize who he is and why he's there.

Applegate offers Boyd not only a winning team, but a chance to be its star player by becoming 22-year-old Joe Hardy, played by Christopher Charles Wood. Boyd agrees, but wisely insists on an escape clause. The devil changes him into Hardy, who has looks, talent, youth, and fame. Then Applegate makes trouble by ordering his devilish mistress, Lola (Chryssie Whitehead), to try to seduce young Hardy, who will be sorely tempted.

Joe Hardy (Christopher Charles Wood) and Meg Boyd (Patti Cohenour) in Damn Yankees at The 5th Avenue Theatre.
Photo: Chris Bennion

Several questions give the story conflict. When it comes to young Joe and Lola, will he or won't he? He raises suspicion in the mind of the reporter when makes up a story about being from Hannibal, Missouri. Will he be found out? Will the escape clause work? Will he ever be able to return to his familiar home and beloved wife? When Lola (who also sold her soul to the devil) starts falling in love with the guy she's supposed to evilly seduce, she has conflicts of her own. 

An Outstanding Cast

Wood shows so much control over his rich voice and demonstrates his impressive acting ability. He brings flair to the fun bits and sensitivity to the sentimental scenes, singing ballads like "A Man Doesn't Know" and "Near to You" with power and emotion.

Hastings also sings "A Man Doesn't Know" with warmth and feeling, and Cohenour does the same a version from the female perspective as they portray the couple, Joe and Meg Boyd. Both play their parts with skill and sincerity.

I am tempted to call Whitehead's performance as Lola "flawless" because she pulls off every gesture, facial expression, and song with such perfection. I don't see how anyone could do a more impressive job in that role. She sparkles with fiery pizazz.

Then there's Altwies, who ignites his scenes as the devil, probably the most challenging role of allbeing handsome, charming, witty, and wicked all at once. With his humor and vulnerabilities, Applegate almost seems a little bit human. Don't be fooled!  In a flash, his voice, harsh commands, and actions incinerate such illusions, as Satan shows himself to be completely in charge. Altwies walks this tightrope so well he catches the audience off guard with shocking effectiveness.  

Lola (Chryssie Whitehead) and the company of Damn Yankees at The 5th Avenue Theatre.
Photo: Chris Bennion
Every cast member does a great job. The entire baseball team and their Coach Van Buren (Allen Fitzpatrick) charm as they entertain and they belt out the song "Heart" with "heart." Carol Swarbrick gives her fun characterization of Sister a delightful personality and physical presence that made me smile every time she appeared and Julie Briskman as her Sister's sister, Doris, plays her part well too.

A great team effort and worth the price of a ticket

When we think of musical theater we first think of the stars we see on stage, singing, dancing, and acting. But as Armstrong pointed out before the curtain opened, it takes over 100 people working behind the scenesincluding the orchestra—to do the job. And what a job they do!

The only negative I can cite is that the first act is too long, about twice as long as the second act. My advice? Don't consume too many liquids before the show.

Tickets start at only $19 and can be ordered through this link to the box office, by calling (206) 625-1900, or at the door. The  5th Avenue Theatre is located in downtown Seattle at 1308 5th Avenue. Parking is available for only $6 after 6 p.m. Check the theater's website for directions and other information.

Then go! You'll have a great time.

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