Tuesday, July 15, 2008

A Whole Lotta Lola

Damn Yankees
Music and lyrics by Richard Adler & Jerry Ross
Book by George Abbott & Douglass Wallop
Directed by John Rando
Starring Sean Hayes, Jane Krakowski, Cheyenne Jackson, Megan Lawrence, Randy Graff, Michael Mulheren, Veanne Cox

New York City Center
131 West 55th Street
Performances July 5-27, 2008

Hayes and Krakowski in Damn Yankees (photo: Joan Marcus)
City Center's Encores! began its "Summer Stars" series last year with a staging of Gypsy that set the bar at an almost impossible height. Could the series hit another home run? Even though this summer’s production, Damn Yankees, is another sure-fire audience pleaser, there’s an almost inevitable letdown -- but only if you compare the show to Gypsy, which I will now stop doing.

By any standard, this Damn Yankees is terrifically entertaining. Sure, many of the pieces were already in place: nearly foolproof music, a clever book that’s both funny and poignant for baseball fans and non-fans alike, and the marvelous Bob Fosse choreography, which has been recreated for this production. John Rando’s sleek staging makes the right moves -- with only a few minor errors along the way -- in its depiction of the rise and fall (and rise) of slugger Joe Hardy and the bottom-feeding Washington Senators, who finally beat the hated Yankees during a most magical season.

For marrying musical theater to our national pastime, we can thank Richard Adler and Jerry Ross (music and lyrics) and George Abbott and Douglass Wallop (book writers), Whenever I see this thoroughly delightful show -- including the mid-'90s Broadway revival with Bebe Neuwirth and Victor Garber, and later Jerry Lewis -- I marvel at how easily digestible it is, with nary an awkward scene nor a throwaway tune in sight.

Rando’s conventional production gets the job done with huge assists from John Lee Beatty’s simple but workable set designs, William Ivey Long’s sharp costumes. and Peter Kaczorowski’s spot-on lighting. Rob Berman conducts the Encores! orchestra with brio, and an engaging supporting cast comes up aces, led by Randy Graff’s heartbreaking portrait of Joe’s lonely wife. Cheyenne Jackson brings his considerable charm, burnished baritone, and chiseled physique to the role of Joe Hardy: a true triple play.

And the two TV stars at the show’s center? There was initial scoffing at the casting of Sean Hayes as the devilish Applegate, and he does in fact lean on his fey Will & Grace persona too many times for my taste. But he flings the character's evilly funny one-liners like nobody’s business; he mostly avoids the temptation to mug mercilessly; and in his lone song, “Those Were the Good Old Days,” he displays a natural stage temperament and an accomplished piano technique. The audience loves him, natch.

As for Jane Krakowski, it’s unfair to tag her as a TV star, even though she was in Ally McBeal and currently stars in 30 Rock. Krakowski has been starring in musicals on and off Broadway since she was 18, and no one who saw her show-stopping turn in the 2003 revival of Nine -- for which she won a well-deserved Tony -- would ever call her a “mere” TV personality.

That Krakowski makes a supremely sexy Lola is a no-brainer. She can strut and vamp with the best of them in her two signature numbers, “A Little Brains, A Little Talent” and “Whatever Lola Wants,” where she overcomes her initial hesitation in performing Fosse’s exquisitely crafted steps for the original Lola, Gwen Vernon. But Krakowski is also a first-rate comedienne and serious actress; hers is the most believably vulnerable as well as the most enticing Lola I’ve yet seen.

Will this production bring Damn Yankees back to Broadway? If ecstatic audience reaction is any indication, the Encores! people must surely be considering it. Even if it’s not a grand slam like Gypsy -- sorry, but I couldn’t resist mentioning that show again! -- Damn Yankees is a bases-clearing double.

Originally posted on timessquare.com

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