12 October 2014
Damn Yankees is a difficult show to pull off in London these days. Firstly, at its core, lies a largely incomprehensible love of baseball. Secondly, although in an apparently realistic 1950’s setting, the narrative is a reworking of the Faust legend and involves creatures from Hell and magical occurrences. Thirdly, the risqué element that would have been visceral when it debuted on Broadway in 1955 has long since been surpassed by the sexual revolutions of the decades starting with and following the Sixties.
Now playing at the Landor Theatre is a revival of Damn Yankees, directed by the imaginative and energetic Robert McWhir, which seeks to sidestep the inherent difficulties of the piece, despite limited budgetary support, through charm, risqué fun and a rich seam of gentle mockery.
It’s a silly story. Ageing, overweight baseball fan is visited by the Devil who offers to exchange the fan’s soul for a chance to change the fate of his beloved but always losing baseball team. Deal done, the fan finds himself years younger and much fitter and capable of outstanding baseball skill. He gets to join his useless favourite team and his Devil-given skills propel the team up the ladder of success. Meanwhile, the Devil gets his best temptress, Lola, out of her dancing gig in Hell and sends her out to seduce the fan, in an effort to make the fan lose sight of his real life and wife, so that the fan’s soul is his forever. But the power of the true love between the fan and his wife is too strong, the Devil is defeated, the team wins and the fan is restored to his right self. Yep, love and baseball can defeat the Devil.
Fortunately, the rather lame book (George Abbott and Douglass Wallop) is augmented by a pretty Damn fine score and lyrics from Richard Adler and Jerry Ross. The huge hit, Heart, comes from this show. There are some lovely ballads too, as well as a couple of show-stopping numbers for the temptress Lola: A Little Brains, A Little Talent and Whatever Lola Wants.
Because of the size of the Landor, balance between musicians and soloists is not always easy to achieve and the small band under the direction of Michael Webborn are not as aware of the need for balance as they might be, particularly when the women are singing. More care in that department would yield good results.
The surprise trick to this production comes from Robbie O’Reilly whose fresh and engaging choreography enlivens the entire production and gives it, well, heart. He finds a way to inject some risqué action by introducing a routine for the young, fit ensemble where, clad only in white towels, they twirl and parade while singing with gusto. And the lads do him proud – it’s a routine worthy of Gypsy Rose Lee.
As the Devil character, Mr Applegate, Jonathan D Ellis was all suave, seething, pantomime villain; I particularly liked his male Lily Munster hair. Part snake-oil salesman, part maniac, part show-stealer and part clown, Ellis drills every laugh he can from the bare mines of the script. His big Act Two number, Those Were The Good Old Days, is, as he says himself during it, worth the price of admission alone. He also proved himself adept at impromptu banter, taking the time to mercilessly skewer a young man who had made the mistake of walking across the stage to find the facilities while a scene (featuring Ellis) was playing.
Poppy Tierney made a lush and pouting Lola. She sang and danced convincingly and made the most of the Carry On aspects of her character. O’Reilly could have pushed a few more boundaries in her routines, emphasising the sexual side of Lola’s mission more acutely, but that is a quibble really. Tiernay adeptly showed the contradictions in Lola and when she turned on the Devil, the groundwork had been properly laid.
As Joe Hardy, the fan who makes the deal with the Devil, freshly graduated Alex Lodge has all the elements of an excellent leading man: he is good looking, oozes charm and style and has a lovely voice. At this stage of his career, he is the perfect choice for Marius in Les Miserables . But Joe is not Marius – he is a man who has lived and who feels so passionate about baseball that he sells his soul to the Devil. He is a man who has experienced a lot of life.
Lodge makes a good fist of the role, but he does not seem to trust himself onstage enough to take risks, to stretch himself, to support himself properly when he sings. It’s a shame because he is obviously the real deal and with confidence and better technique will be a formidable performer.
His soft singing was particularly good, but there was not enough chemistry between him and Lola or him and his wife, Meg (Nova Skipp). Much of the weight of the show rests on Joe Hardy, and the key to the action and fun lies in Hardy’s different interactions – with his wife, his baseball buddies, Lola and the Devil. Lodge does a fine job of most of this and provides the backbone of the production.
There is good work too from Tony Stansfield, Leah Pinney and Sophie May Whitfield. As a whole the male ensemble works hard and with ferocious energy, but the standouts are Kiel Payton (one to watch) and Barnaby Hughes, with a special mention for Ben Sell and Sam Stones, each of whose hair should really get a bow of its own.
The programme is silent about the Design, so presumably McWhir was responsible for it. It is as ingenious as ever – utilising what space there is effectively and colourfully. The costumes are fun and cute. Richard Lambert’s lighting really does enhance the experience; it is always good to have a lighting designer unafraid to make humour through lighting.
Like the Union Theatre, the Landor continues to bring new or largely overlooked musicals to London as well as encouraging and developing the skills of freshly graduated musical theatre talent. If you don’t know Damn Yankees, or even if you do, pop into the Landor to catch this – there is a lot to admire.