Monday, July 14, 2008

With an emphasis on the former

When I was in college I bought a copy of The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant, the Douglass Wallop novel on which the musical Damn Yankees is based, at a used-books store for about $1. I intended it to be a gag gift for a Yankees fan, but I never got around to giving it away; I never got around to reading it, either, at least not past the first chapter. But I did, at least, read the first paragraph, and I was very surprised to learn that in Wallop’s version, the story of Joe Boyd, who sells his soul for a chance to lead the Washington Senators to victory as Joe Hardy, takes place in the future. Not the distant future, to be sure; the book was published in 1954, and the story is set in 1958. It was an of-the-moment fantasy, a fairy tale grounded in ordinary reality. Then it became a musical, with a score by the young songwriting team of Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, and a book by novelist Wallop and George Abbott. It opened on Broadway in 1955 (an impressive turnaround, but not atypical in the era before the 10-year workshop process), and immediately introduced a number of new standards to the American songbook. Like the novel, the musical -- according to the IBDB listing for that production -- was set in "Washington, D.C., some time in the future."

Nowadays, no one could get away with setting Damn Yankees in the present, let alone the future; it is very definitely a period piece, a relic of the past, in both historical and musical-theatre terms. Acknowledging and working with that fact was the genius move of director Jack O'Brien, whose 1994 Broadway revival of Damn Yankees was an affectionate love letter to the 1950s. He reworked the book, undoing the kinks in the story and clarifying the details of the plot. He redistributed the songs, cut some redundant reprises and superfluous characters, and commissioned new dance and vocal arrangements (including a brilliantly witty sequence that reimagines “Shoeless Joe…” as a string of advertising jingles). I never saw that revival, so I am basing my estimation of its success on its cast recording. As represented on the album, the show sounds vibrant, vivid, suspenseful, moving and hilarious. I knew the revival had made some adjustments to achieve all of that, but I never realized how many, or how very crucial they were, until this week, when I saw the original, unedited version of Damn Yankees in its Encores! production, now running at City Center.

While I'm giving background, I should note that the mission of Encores!, as I understand it, is to provide a venue and an airing for nearly-forgotten, seldom-performed gems. It's the cheaper, lower-stakes alternative to a real Broadway revival. A chance to have a fun date with a musical (like Kismet) that you wouldn't want to marry. Lately, though, it's become a backdoor backers' audition for a proposed revival that no one wants to commit to upfront -- especially crafty because, if it works, you can do your full revival with a budget set and claim that it's Encores!-inspired. During the "regular" season, Encores! shows are staged concerts, performed with scripts in hand; the "Summer Stars" shows (like last year's Gypsy) are more commercial, and ostensibly "fully staged." That means there are sets, though simple ones, and everyone is off book and choreographed, though they haven't had nearly enough time to rehearse. With only three weeks of prep, the shows inevitably have a summer-stock feel. That can be an asset. After all, this game of musical theatre is only one-half skill. The other half is something else, something greater... Sing it with me: You gotta have heart.

"Heart" is precisely what's missing from the current "Summer Stars" offering, John Rando's production of Damn Yankees.
The show doesn't have the energy and high spirits I'd expect from a summer-stock troupe. Instead, it feels like a very competent high-school, or possibly college, spring musical. School shows tend to be overrehearsed, at least in my experience, but the end result is just about the same as this underrehearsed, underconceived production: the memorizing-lines-is-hard-enough blankness of most of the performances, the lack of imagination in the staging, the going-through-the-motions blandness of pretty much everything. The decision to use Bob Fosse's original choreography is being billed as a draw, but onstage, the result reminded me a bit too much of how the dream ballet choreography in my high school's production of Oklahoma! was lifted directly from the movie. (Of course, Agnes DeMille's "original choreography by" credit is contractually mandated to appear alongside the names of Rodgers and Hammerstein, so as long as that's the case I suppose you can't blame our choreographer for helping herself to the actual moves.) Fosse was a visionary, of course, but musical-theatre conventions and choreography have developed quite a bit in the last half-century, in part thanks to his trailblazing, and in 2008 his original staging feels as dated and stiff as the alternating full-stage/in-one structure of the book.

Not many musicals have opening numbers as static as Damn Yankees's "Six Months Out of Every Year." It takes imagination to follow a rousing overture with a song as motionless as "Six Months" and sustain the audience's attention and energy. I don't know whether Fosse can be blamed for the elementary-school staging of "Six Months" in this production, but it's the first deflating encounter with the lack of imagination that characterizes Rando's direction throughout. The director seems to have no attitude toward the show at all; Jack O'Brien's approach was aggressive, combining affection with innovation, but Rando's approach is workmanlike and flavorless. Of course, he didn't have the freedom or the resources that O'Brien had to help him smooth out the rough patches, but he could have made his Yankees an energetic celebration of musical theatre history. Damn Yankees is a show with a lively sense of humor, and the fact that it never takes itself too seriously is enough to carry you through the creakier moments, even now. If the folks onstage are having enough fun, if the stakes are high and the characterizations are rich, even a distraction like "Who's Got the Pain?" can seem, if not organic, at least enjoyable. But a director has to have some way of making it all work. A contemporary production needn't be self-conscious, but it ought to be at least a little self-aware.

Instead, here, most of the actors are reluctant to explore the broad cartoonishness of their characters, but uncertain what to do with them instead. They try for a relative realism that ends up feeling lifeless. Randy Graff and Veanne Cox are out to make Meg and Sister dry and ironic when they ought to be sincere and silly. The baseball players are muted versions of the dumb lunks in the book; aside from Jimmy Ray Bennett, a charismatic Sohovik, they make little impression. Who cares whether these guys win? Kathy Fitzgerald, as Doris, a character so marginal she was dropped entirely from O'Brien's rewrite, is one of the few who gives in to the character on the page, and as a result she steals every scene she's in. Megan Lawrence has a spark of life as Gloria -- the only character aside from Applegate with access to irony -- but with nothing solid to react against, her attitude mostly fizzles. Cheyenne Jackson is perfectly cast as Joe Hardy -- he has just the sort of looks you'd hope for if the devil were to transform you into a 1950s baseball hero, and a voice that makes you glad you bought a ticket just to hear him sing "Near to You." He, too, could have brought much more color to the role, but at least Joe's adorable blankness is written into the script.

As for the stars with top billing: Jane Krakowski is a disappointment as a Lola who's all wide eyes and Marilyn Monroe wigs, without a glimmer of personality or authority underneath. She must have spent all of her rehearsal time learning the dances -- these days, it's rare for a leading lady to have a single spotlight dance, but Lola has three, count 'em, three solo routines in Fosse's original staging (plus her turn with a random partner in "Who's Got the Pain?"). And with the partial exception of "Two Lost Souls," they are almost excruciatingly uncomfortable to watch. Not because Krakowski isn't talented -- she's quite good -- but because they feel so totally dated and out of place. I remember cringing with embarrassment the first time I watched Gwen Verdon's striptease routine during "Whatever Lola Wants" in the movie version of Damn Yankees. I wondered, Is this supposed to be sexy? Am I supposed to be laughing? (See it for yourself here, about 4 minutes into the clip.) It was a bit like watching the strip sequence at the end of Gypsy, but at least there you know your discomfort is the point, whereas in this case you suspect you ought to be entertained. I had the same reaction watching Jane Krakowski do "Whatever Lola Wants" live -- Joe Hardy might have been embarrassed, but I was mortified, and the rest of the audience seemed equally put off. There's also no hint of Gwen Verdon's good humor or self-assurance, thanks to the decision to base Lola's look and demeanor on that of Marilyn Monroe. The backless dresses are a nice touch, but Marilyn singing "Whatever Lola Wants" wouldn't look like that; the number in the show calls for a persona closer to Carmen Miranda's.

Sean Hayes, as Applegate, is often the only thing onstage that feels alive -- he has the sense of mischief and fun that's missing from the rest of the show. However, he is not the least bit menacing, and without a real threat the plot is about as suspenseful as an episode of Dora the Explorer. Still, Hayes gets the biggest reaction of the first act when, just after "Whatever Lola Wants," he upbraids Lola for her failure to seduce Joe -- "Your methods are old-fashioned!" he spits. Having spent the last five minutes shifting in our seats in uncomfortable silence, wondering why this supposedly sexy number turned out so grotesque, the audience roars gratefully at Applegate's remark. Thank God someone noticed, even if it was only Satan! As Applegate mocked a few of Lola's moves, the man behind me asked his companion, "Was that in the script?" How could the original authors have known we'd be sitting here, 50 years later, puzzling over the failure of their old-fashioned methods?

Throughout the show, the "original" staging feels not so much recreated as exhumed. In this age of increasingly athletic, even gymnastic choreography, the "Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, MO" dance number looks like something from a middle-school Christmas pageant. It simply makes no sense to interrupt the story at that point and watch a bunch of baseball players prancing across the stage, politely taking turns to perform underwhelming combinations that rely way too much on glove-smacking and hat-doffing; they look like anything but baseball players, and the number is anything but rousing. (For a vivid illustration of how things have changed, check out the 1994 version, as performed at the Tonys. And if you're really in the mood, you can find YouTube clips from a number of high school productions that make up in energy what they lack in professionalism.) "Two Lost Souls" is the one number where retaining the Fosse choreography seems like a good idea, and even then it feels less like part of this show than like a well-staged scene from a Fosse revue.

Only one number is conceived with an eye for the strengths and circumstances of this production and staged with real imagination, and ironically, it's Applegate's nostalgic Vaudeville-pastiche number, "Those Were the Good Old Days." Hayes surprises everyone by sitting down at the piano and accompanying himself, with showy classical-repertoire flourishes and highly competent vamping. Unfortunately, he gets up from the keyboard to sing the encore, which makes for a major anticlimax -- his voice is weak, even with heavy amplification, and nothing tops the entertainment value of seeing him bring something new to the role. By the time he sings "It's a hammy routine, but it always plays," the number has lost its vigor, and you wish Hayes would go back to being hammy. Incidentally, that song's Al Jolson jokes are entirely ignored; the assumption that the original delivery of "Was anybody happy?" won't scan is one of few concessions to the 21st-century audience. And, of course, the heavy dependence on microphones is a concession to the 21st-century performers (and the size of the hall), one that doesn't exactly put the audience in a 1950s mood, especially since the speakers were constantly cutting out at the show I saw. Ray Walston never had to compete with that.

The little old lady next to me had a great time. When they started "Two Lost Souls," she got so excited that she actually sang "...We got each other!" before the actors got to it. I was having trouble keeping quiet myself -- after all, it would take a lot to drain the fun out of this score. And I got teary at the end, as I always do when I listen to the soundtrack. But aside from that one moment there was nothing moving or compelling about this production, and anyone seeing the show for the first time would leave with the impression that it is hopelessly musty. And I don't think it had to be that way. Walking away from the theatre, I passed a young woman who was trying to sort out the plot -- "So, Applegate owned his soul, but then... He changed him back?" And yes, the original book is convoluted, and the structure is bizarre, especially toward the end. But this staging seems determined to emphasize the flaws and keep the assets well hidden. Anyone hoping for a Damn Yankees that, as Lola would say, has its aces in all the right places will go home as disappointed as a Washington Senators fan.

1 comment:

Mollie said...

Mollie, what a great review (I mean...you know what I mean). I saw the '94 revival and remember it dimly but fondly, but that's also the only time I've ever seen the show, at all (also, was about twelve) and definitely didn't know it was a reimagination of the tone of the show. Thanks for the history!