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It’s nice, in a season chock-full of Nutcrackers and Christmas Carols and other holiday whatnot, that Arena Stage is counterprogramming with a chipper little show about the devil. It’s nicer still that though Damn Yankees won’t ever be a grand slam—it’s hardly the richest, the smartest, or the most tuneful of musicals—Molly Smith’s snazzy, boisterous production is at least a pretty solid base hit.
That in itself is something of an accomplishment: Arena’s artistic director hasn’t had the strongest track record with tuners, and her last musical outing, 2003’s Camelot, was downright dire. This one’s tighter, smoother, and occasionally even inspired—a winning play from a team that hasn’t had the winningest season.
What gets damned in Damn Yankees isn’t that infuriating bunch of pinstriped New Yorkers, of course, but a die-hard fan of the Washington Senators circa 1955. Joe Boyd (Lawrence Redmond) is a Chevy Chase real-estate salesman, middle-aged and middling in most other ways, too, and so sick of the home team’s losing streak that he’s willing to sell his soul for a chance at helping them win the pennant. When the devil, in the person of Brad Oscar’s jovially nasty Mr. Applegate, turns average Joe Boyd into handsome home-run king Joe Hardy (Matt Bogart), the question is whether the sweet taste of stardom will be enough to overpower the tang of homesickness: There is, of course, a good-hearted woman tending the home fires. Guess which impulse, after a thrilling pennant battle and a front-page scandal and a tempting tango with Applegate’s long-legged associate Lola (Meg Gillentine), conquers all?
It’s an embarrassingly old-fashioned story, when you break it down, and the show’s portrait of Joe’s dutiful, patient wife (the wonderfully warm Kay Walbye) is the sort of thing that could have been created only by a particularly smug Eisenhower-era man. (The story, by George Abbott and Douglass Wallop, is based on Wallop’s novel The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant; the tunes are by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, whose other big hit was The Pajama Game.) Still, Arena’s team makes it a pretty charming night, not least because Bogart, Walbye, and Redmond generate real chemistry in the show’s quietest moments: “A Man Doesn’t Know,” a regretful ballad about the cherishables we don’t always cherish in time, and “Near to You,” the sweet, slow beguine that puts Walbye’s Meg in an emotionally perilous spot as her missing husband and his magnetic younger self both croon reassurance.
That’s not to shortchange the flashier bits, which work pretty damn well, too. “Heart,” which the show insists ya gotta have if ya wanna be a real winner, is Damn Yankees’ one genuinely well-known tune, and it gets a rousing reading from the strong bench Smith has assembled—a well-rounded ensemble boasting the usual out-of-towners in addition to a bunch of familiar local faces, including Signature Theatre regulars Steven Cupo, Stephen Gregory Smith, Tracy Lynn Olivera, and Harry A. Winter. Baayork Lee contributes splendidly inventive choreography for that and for all of the big ensemble pieces: There’s a sleek and sassy nightclub scene, all Fosse-esque knees and shoulders and elbows, that takes place in a red-lit Limbo just when it looks as if Joe has lost his soul forever, as well as an appropriately athletic rouser centered on the hard-charging sports reporter (a deliciously snappy Cindy Marchionda) who dubs the Senators’ new hero “Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, Mo.” Lee’s wittiest creation, though, has got to be her staging of the opening number, “Six Months Out of Every Year”; it’s best described as a kind of agitated ballet with boob tubes for a bunch of TV-addict husbands and their baseball-widow wives, and it gets the evening off to a smart start.
George Fulginiti-Shakar’s orchestra sounds solid, and even a little more present than usual in the Fichandler’s unforgiving acoustics, and Smith’s creative team has every bit as much fun celebrating the design choices of the ’50s as it does sending them up. Candy-colored swing skirts and suspended sculptural screens are the order of the day, and, natch, the devil drinks martinis. One of his henchwomen pours them from a hideaway cocktail cart that retro-kitsch collectors will be lining up to buy at the end of the run.
Gillentine slinks her way through Lola’s signature numbers (“Whatever Lola Wants” and “A Little Brains, a Little Talent”) with plenty of style, and Oscar anchors the whole business nicely: His Applegate is a laid-back Beelzebub with just enough huckster in him to remind you that the actor recently spent a spell holding down the part of Max Bialystock in The Producers. What’s not quite working, however, is what seems like a group effort to underscore Joe’s decency. Both Bogart and Redmond appear determined to make Damn Yankees’ hapless hero seem like a good guy, and there’s no real sense of the selfishness it would take to make a man disappear suddenly, leaving nothing but a note saying, basically, “Hold the fort, babe; I’ll be back eventually.”
Lost among all the tenderness these two Joes bring to their scenes with Meg is the fact that he’s a guy who thinks he can always have things both ways—even in a deal with the devil. One of the show’s flaws is that it eventually lets him, but the audience ought to heave a sigh of relief when it does—not sigh at the sweet inevitability of it. Never mind, though: Damn Yankees was never meant to be much more than a diversion, a vehicle for a few fine performances and an affectionate homage to the national pastime. We could argue, once again, about whether that’s the sort of theater Arena Stage ought to be offering. But it’s the holidays, after all—and there are Nutcrackers and Christmas Carols everywhere.CP