You may have heard that the current revival of Damn Yankees at the Kennedy Center amounts to little more than an excuse for Jerry Lewis to strut his stuff. Don’t believe it. Lewis does strut, and his stuff is still a hoot, but the show’s there, too—a sure-footed, brassy tuner from that ’50s era when the songs were the stars and the performers all had to know how to tell a joke.
Lewis, of course, knows his way around a punch line. You expect that. And when he makes his first entrance in a sulfurous puff of smoke as the devil—here to lease the soul of a Washington Senators fan who’d do anything to secure a pennant for his team—snapping out lines with the sort of vaudeville timing only a real vaudevillian can manage, you settle back in your seat with a contented purr.
Shortly, however, you’re sitting up again, prompted by ballplayers springing around the infield in a Blooper Ballet that’s long on back flips, somersaults, and proscenium-width slides, and by a devil’s handmaiden who calls herself Lola and high-kicks her way into a clingy little strapless shift and enough glittering diamond jewelry to turn Liz Taylor green. Lewis may have his name above the title, but the show is asserting itself in the same robust, crowd-pleasing way it did some 40 years ago.
It’s helped by a cast as attractive (lotsa buff torsos in the locker-room scenes) and as talented as any musical-comedy fan might wish. As Joe Hardy, the home run-hitting sensation whose escape clause in his Faustian bargain with the devil provides the show with its plot, John-Michael Flate is a handsome, full-voiced charmer with the sweetest aw-shucks shtick this side of Jimmy Stewart. And Valerie Wright, a slinky enchantress seen locally in Arena’s On the Town, plays Lola as a cross between the role’s originator, Gwen Verdon, and torchy B’way diva Ellen Greene. By the time she’s wrapped her legs around Joe and her vocal chords around the vamps that composer/lyricists Richard Adler and Jerry Ross have provided her, the ballplayer’s wriggling out of his contract with the devil seems anything but foreordained. (One caveat: Wright could profitably cut the Spanish accent on “Whatever Lola Wants”—it has the unfortunate effect of turning a comically seductive song into a Hispanic minstrel show.) In all other respects, the lady’s a knockout.
Also sharp are Dennis Kell and Joy Franz as the older Joe and his devoted wife, and Ellen Grosso as the brassy sports reporter who sings “Shoeless Joe from Hannibal Mo.” (a part that, the Post’s review notwithstanding, was always played by a woman). Jack O’Brien’s staging is snappy and energetic, with only a hint of camp (mostly in Douglas W. Schmidt’s affectionate evocation of ’50s split-levels and David C. Woolard’s pink-and-black outfits for the obligatory ’50s mambo number, goofily choreographed by Rob Marshall).
O’Brien has tightened the script a bit, cutting multiple reprises of “(You’ve Gotta Have) Heart,” and adding a break for jokes in the middle of the devil’s second-act nostalgia-fest (“I see cannibals a-munchin’/ a missionary luncheon”) so Lewis can do five minutes of pure, cane-flipping, straw-hat-twirling, joke-telling vaudeville.
This is necessary, not because the second act is weak and needs punching up, but because the audience has come expecting to see Lewis as Lewis, and for the most part the star has been devilishly disciplined about staying in character. Apart from a few “Hey Laaaaaaady”s, he tackles the role with much the same restraint I remember original star Ray Walston bringing to it in a 20th-anniversary revival that played Shady Grove Music Fair in the mid-’70s. Audiences at the time expected Walston to do a My Favorite Martian devil and got something much classier.
Now, from Lewis they expect a Nutty Professor devil, and are again getting more than they paid for. The performer is every inch a pro—funny, endearing, and downright Beelzebubbly—but he’s all those things in the service of the script. And because he’s not showboating, Damn Yankees can work its entertaining magic just as winningly it always has.
Hal Prince, one of Damn Yankees’ original Broadway producers, is across town at the moment, trying to whip Whistle Down the Wind, another musical set in the 1950s, into shape for Broadway. He has his work cut out for him.
The movie that inspired Whistle was set in England and starred Alan Bates and Hayley Mills. The musical is set in Louisiana and stars Andrew Lloyd Webber. Not literally of course, but the pop maestro’s syrupy melodies are pretty much the only reason patrons will have for sitting through its two hours and 40 minutes of dark whimsy at the National Theatre.
The story, as fans of the 1961 film will recall, concerns a girl who surprises a wounded chain-gang escapee in her family’s barn with a shriek of “Who are you?” and assumes the exasperated “Jesus Christ” he snorts while passing out from exhaustion is her answer. Soon all the town’s children are making pilgrimages to the barn, while their parents are searching frantically for the convict. The children’s openness to the possibility of miracles provides redemption to all…or something like that. Musicals, alas, can’t all be based on Faust.
Still, there’s no real reason this sort of inspirational hooey shouldn’t work onstage—Rodgers and Hammerstein might have turned it into a companion piece for Carousel—and initially it seems Lloyd Webber’s melodies will provide a strong starting point. The first number is a rousing spiritual, the second a perfectly pleasant little children’s ditty about naming kittens (no Cats jokes, please). But by the title song, which comes perhaps 20 minutes into the evening, the show feels as generic as one of those formulaic also-ran musicals that cluttered up Broadway in the ’60s, following all the rules and exciting absolutely no one while limping through a hundred performances.
Partly this is the fault of the material, which follows the same basic arc as any number of outcast stories. But it’s also a staging problem, since the production has been deliberately scaled down from the sort of megamusical with which Lloyd Webber has lately been associated. Whistle Down the Wind is designed to look conventional and a bit old-fashioned, rather like shows of the period in which it’s set, as if to prove that the composer’s oeuvre isn’t entirely dependent on falling chandeliers, roller-skating locomotives, and flying truck tires.
This pretty much courts charges of derivativeness, though when Prince opts for formulaic gestures, at least he doesn’t stick with a single formula. His front-porch opening could have been lifted directly from Oklahoma!, his disaffected-greasers sequence from Grease, and most of his kids-in-the-barn scenes from Oliver! By Act 2, a pair of nondescript songs have Prince recycling scenic train effects and tenors-in-the-rafters moments from his own productions of On the Twentieth Century and Phantom of the Opera.
It’s hard to say where the director, or, indeed, lyricist Jim Steinman (who at least isn’t recycling his work for Meat Loaf) and librettist Patricia Knop could start in giving the show a personality of its own. They might try placing it more firmly in the American South, since Lloyd Webber’s music has only the slightest Louisiana flavor (a harmonica wails in the overture, after which the orchestrations shift into neutral). And they might give their glowering, growling leading man (former Phantom Davis Gaines) something to do besides brood. The one time he seems vaguely interesting is when telling the kids a bawdy tale that unfortunately proves pointless.
Because the stage version centers on a much older girl than the movie—ingenue Irene Molloy is meant to be in her midteens—there could also be a lot more sexual tension between her and the convict than there is now, though of course the Phantom parallels would then become unavoidable.
With the help of Andrew Jackness’ gracefully rolling sets and painted backdrops, and Howell Binkley’s fiery lighting (cloud effects are especially nice), transitions between scenes are as fluid and cinematic as in any Prince show. Alas, this serves mostly to highlight how oddly static the musical numbers are, even when they deal with such theoretically kinetic activities as snake charming and motorcycle rides.
By and large, this isn’t Lloyd Webber’s fault. His melodies seem catchy enough on first hearing, lush and moodily operatic as always. But for those who’ve wondered what the composer’s post-Cats musicals will be like after their initial runs are over and the flash and sizzle they’ve been accorded on Broadway gives way to less grand productions in community centers and high schools, Whistle Down the Wind offers a dispiriting answer: If you don’t go out whistling the sets, you might not go out whistling at all.