Chicago Theater Review: DAMN YANKEES (Light Opera Works in Evanston)

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by Lawrence Bommer on June 8, 2014

in Theater-Chicago

A THREE-HOUR HOME RUN

Clearly and cleanly, tried and true director/choreographer Kevin Bellie trusts the heart out of Adler and Ross’ 1952 Broadway classic. Damn Yankees, Light Opera Works’ summer treat at Northwestern University’s Cahn Auditorium, is glowing and glorious fun. Their faithful recreation gets richly rewarded by complete and accurate orchestrations, clever 50’s costumes, wonderfully textured rolling sets, and the sheer verve of music and movement. It never strikes out, hits for the bleachers, and scores big in every inning—I mean, scene. In L.O.W.’s 34 seasons of surefire musicals, this easily makes the top tier.

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Invigoratingly grafting the legend of Faust onto the national pastime, Damn Yankees tests both the love and the loyalty of a middle-aged baseball fan(atic). Joe Boyd of Chevy Chase, Maryland sells his soul to regain his youth to help his lovable Washington Senators (the “nasty Nats” were still in the future) in a pennant race with a still-despised New York sports monopoly. (The musical is based on co-bookwriter Douglass Wallop’s The Year The Yankees Lost the Pennant.) But the devil didn’t make him do it: Joe’s splendid sell-out (his batting average becomes .666!) is a pure offering that saves the season and his marriage too. Ingeniously, the plot tests the marriage twice—when a young Joe appears as a stranger to his pining wife Meg and when he meets the infernal temptress Lola.

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There’s hardly a foul ball in this fervently faithful original restoration, which, unlike the 2001 Broadway revival, doesn’t rush the story to an abrupt conclusion or feature an oxygen-sucking Jerry Lewis as Mr. Applegate (Lucifer), a human black hole whenever he appeared.

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Never condescending to these accessible characters, Bellie’s staging downplays any smarminess that could easily spoil the sweetness. He matches the right look with a ton of heart in this struggle for Joe’s soul. As the temptress Lola with “a little brains, a little talent,” Erica Evans is as decent as the job allows: Vamping up a storm with cuddly but carnivorous sexual shenanigans (“Whatever Lola Wants, Lola Gets”), she’s a worthy Gwen Verdon successor in the slinky, Bob Fosse-inspired dance duets “Who’s Got The Pain?” and “Two Lost Souls.”

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A devilish comic who serves up both ham and hubris, Light Opera Works’ artistic director Rudy Hogenmiller’s wickedly efficient devil only occasionally steals focus (unlike Lewis who hogged every limelight). He struts his smooth satanic stuff in the vaudeville ballad “Those Were the Good Old Days” (though briefly losing laughs on opening night when some of the shtick went sideways). Even for Satan, less is more.

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The mortals are richly depicted by Kirk Swenk as good old Joe, Judy Knudston as his unquestioning helpmate (this demure delight could have just stepped out of Father Knows Best), and strapping, handsome and hunky Brian Acker who sings the soul out of young Joe’s beautiful ballads. “Near to You,” his lesser-known ballad with his still-elderly wife, is total tenderness, equaled only by his heartfelt “A Man Doesn’t Know What He Has Till He Loses It.”

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The big blessing here is the hard-hoofing ensemble: The dances are a force of joy propelled to perfection. The domestic romp “Six Months Out of Every Year” is the entire Eisenhower Era set to steps. The boys of the Washington Senators couldn’t be sharper or sweeter than in the abstinence anthem “The Game.” The country jamboree “Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, MO” rampages across the huge stage. And, when this huge cast proclaims “You Gotta Have Heart,” they do. We got it.

1486696_10154246560835444_1957402654891872414_nposter photo by Rich Foreman
production photos by Chris Ocken

Damn Yankees
Light Opera Works
Cahn Auditorium
600 Emerson Street in Evanston
scheduled to end on June 15, 2014
for tickets, call 847.920.5360
or visit Light Opera Works

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

{ 1 comment }

Larry Bloch June 8, 2014 at 7:25 pm

The years for both the original production and the Broadway revival, which eventually starred Jerry Lewis, are incorrect. “Damn Yankees” is from 1955, not 1952. The revival was 1994-95, not 2001.

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