Friends invited us to see Damn Yankees last night at City Center; I've been thrilled with most of the shows I've seen there, and Cheyenne Jackson was in it so it seemed like a potential homerun. Except I forgot I don't even like baseball, so I should have been so surprised it struck out with me.
For me, the main issue was not the production, nor was it the performances—it's just that the vehicle, an aggressively cutesy 1955 musical comedy, is terribly dated. One man's "dated" is another's "classic," but this show lost me immediately with two dreadful opening numbers (which are deservedly obscure in comparison to the show's familiar hits).
The story follows gone-to-pot baseball fan Joe Boyd, who loves the game and his Washington Senators so much he strikes a deal with the devil to be a young, fit homerun slugger in order to help the team win the pennant. In exchange, he gives up his soul. I have a problem rooting for an annoyingly distracted slob who worships baseball so much he happily gives up his life—and his wife—to help a team win, even if the show is meant to be whimsical.
Later, the devil, in the guise of a sports agent named Applegate (Sean Hayes), employs the feminine wiles of sultry Lola (Jane Krakowski) in an effort to keep the ball player (reborn as Cheyenne Jackson) from becoming too homesick, and therefore more likely to exercise an escape clause in his deal that allows him to back out at the last minute.
As Lola, Krakowski is obviously the star of the show, vamping nimbly through Bob Fosse's demanding, sometimes downright weird (as opposed to funny or sexy) choreography and singing the show's best number—"Whatever Lola Wants, Lola Gets"—with transcendant pizzazz. She's a delight to watch, even if it makes no sense that the audience is supposed to root for the heartfelt kiss she eventually shares with her conquest after he's shown her that her evil ways are empty.
(And yes, the Madonna/A-Rod subtext was sizzlin' with talk of home-wrecking and blond bombshells who always get their man. When Hayes had to say "prima donna," he seemed to go out of his way to enunciate!)
Hayes was dreadful as the devil in the first act—stiff, his comic timing off—but improved dramatically as the show went on and he seemed to relax into a quasi-"Jack" from Will & Grace (Just About Jack, I'd say) style that worked well with the effete devil. His "Those Were The Good Old Days" was a highlight for me in that it has the blackly comic lyrics that might have made the show more timeless had they been employed throughout. Hayes chewed scenery in this number, as he is supposed to, making his devil into a shameless, delightful ham. He also nearly brought the house down when mimicking Lola's vamping, and drew quite a few guffaws when faced with a boxers-clad Jackson in the locker room.
Jackson was nice to look at but oddly flat in his oddly flat role. He had no charisma, but then the character is all over the place and in my opinion unsympathetic.
Randy Graff, playing his wife, was lovely, very subtle, and helped make "Near To You" the only emotionally affecting minutes of the entire production. The biggest laughs went to Veanne Cox (who I'll always remember for the infamous "pinky toe" episode of Seinfeld) and Kathy Fitzgerald as the fannish neighbors whose ga-ga reaction to Jackson's famous baseballer was priceless.
I wish I were more enthusiastic about a show staged so enthusiastically. Everyone was off-book and it looked great. I just didn't feel that in 2008 some of what I imagine had to have been the original sweetness was intact. It's like it was too hard for the actors to live in that cutesy world without allowing a little bit of an eye roll to creep through in their performances. And to do a creaky old show like Damn Yankees justice, you gotta have heart. Best part of the show? Spotting Andrea Martin outside!