With the baseball season heading into its climax for the year, the Broadway musical Damn Yankees on display from The Heritage Players is particularly timely. The lively production, packed chock-full of talented players, does the sport and the musical proud.
With a book by George Abbott and Douglass Wallop, and music by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, the story is told in classic Broadway fashion. Richard Adler and Jerry Ross did some of the best work of their careers on the score, with songs that have become part of the fabric of American musical theatre. Damn Yankees is the Faustian-themed story of a guy who wants something so much that he’s willing to sell his soul to the devil to get it. Middle-aged uber-fan Joe Boyd, devoted to the lackluster, 7th place Washington Senators baseball team, enters into a contract with old Beezlebub himself. In exchange for his soul, Joe will be transformed into the best 22-year old baseball player on the diamond and lead his team to the pennant. He becomes Joe Hardy, a ball-playing phenome. When it starts to look as though Joe might try to get out of his deal with the Devil (here known as Mr. Applegate) Applegate sends his trusted weapon, Lola, to convince Joe to keep his deal. How it plays out is one of the best stories in musical theatre.
Director Michael Hartsfield has constructed a well-paced, entertaining production with far more plusses than minuses. The set works well under the lighting design, and while the pit band had some serious challenges, the music was supportive more often than not. Music director Stephen Michael Deininger does a fine job leading the band and the well performed choral numbers.
The supporting cast has some truly standout performances. Suzanne Young plays Joe’s long-suffering wife, Meg, with a low-key resolve that is endearingly touching. Her voice is not well suited to her songs, but her delivery is nonetheless well done. Kevin Kelehan is a natural as Joe Boyd. He’s a skilled actor who knows exactly how to play this part. Lenny Taub is effective as team owner Welch, and Angela Stein and Miranda Stein also turn in very nice efforts. Terrence Bennett as one of the Washington Senators baseball players lends his tenor aptly to the songs, but it’s as Eddie in the “Who’s Got the Pain” dance number that he truly shines. An obviously well-trained dancer, he’s as lithe as a rubber band and sharp as a tack.
John Sheldon as Van Buren is like a stock Hollywood actor of a stereotypical sports team manager. All he was missing was the cigar dangling from his mouth. In “You Gotta Have Heart”, his robust voice lands every verse with verve. Sheldon does ‘mug’ as well as anyone on the local scene. And Ashley Gerhardt – what a little firecracker of an actress, with a voice that can blow your hair back off your head with its power. As if that weren’t enough, she also tap dances like a pro. “Shoeless Joe from Hannibal Mo” was so much fun it was all I could do to remain in my seat.
Ryan Geiger as Mr. Applegate (aka the devil) is smarmily efficient. He’s a wonderful actor and I have never seen him on stage when I didn’t enjoy his being there. While his energy seemed a tad off at this performance, when he’s not at 100% of his skill level he’s still head and shoulders above most. He has a great voice that he uses to deliver his lines in tones that range from wheedle to rage and is at his best when showcasing the character’s signature song, “Those Were the Good Old Days”.
Katie Sheldon is at the top of her game as the femme fatale Lola, Applegate’s secret weapon. Every time she appears on stage I was reminded of the great stars of the era when Damn Yankees premiered in 1955, like Gwen Verdon and Cyd Cherise. Katie evokes that spirit with her acting, singing and especially dancing. She’s wonderful at all three but oddly, I enjoyed her acting the most in this piece. When Lola realizes that what she’s doing for Applegate to ensnare Joe Hardy in the devil’s clutches, Katie’s ability to show the character’s sympathy is terrifically compelling. She dances like the Broadway stars of old, sings with a sure and true voice, but her acting is the most satisfying.
And Jim Gerhardt. Wow. He captures the boyish enthusiasm of a middle-aged guy who’s miraculously transformed into baseball wunderkind Jim Hardy, with a twinkle in his eye and a spring in his step that makes you root for him from start to finish. And that voice! He is so good in “A Man Doesn’t Know” and “Goodbye, Old Girl” that you kinda wish the other scenes would rush by a little faster so you could hear him sing again.
Damn Yankees is an enduring piece of musical theatre for a reason. A good story, some great songs, and excellent actors are always a winning combination. Heritage Players’ production is a truly worthy outing.
Thru October 31