THEATER REVIEW : Globe's 'Yankees' Has a Lot of Heart : Revival of 1955 Musical Is Good, Clean Fun, But Is It Broadway League?

TIMES THEATER CRITIC EMERITUS

It must have taken plenty of heart plus a fair share of faith, sweat and sheer stick-to-itiveness to do a revival of the George Abbott-Douglass Wallop 1955 "Damn Yankees."

After all, the musical, based on Wallop's novel "The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant" is fragile stuff: A Frank Capra-ish "Field of Dreams," not very deep and not particularly earthshaking.

Besides, the original had also been staged by the formidable Abbott who, at 106, is very much around to see that no one messes in the wrong way with his show.

Well, no one has. Director Jack O'Brien's slimmer, trimmer version of "Damn Yankees" opened Friday at the Old Globe Theatre and, as far as one could tell, Abbott, in attendance (as was composer-lyricist Richard Adler), liked what he saw.

What's not to like? This revamped "Damn Yankees" has been dusted off with care. Its character is intact. The time is still 1955, and the show still good baseball fun with a crisp Faustian twist. Almost all the numbers are in place, mostly in the same order. There is a vigorous "Blooper Ballet" smashingly (pun intended) choreographed by Rob Marshall. And the highlights of the Adler-Jerry Ross score--"(You Gotta Have) Heart," "Whatever Lola Wants Lola Gets" and Lola's "A Little Brains, a Little Talent"--are as hummable as ever.

O'Brien has discarded the original cast of hundreds in favor of a tight two-dozen characters, and his book revisions have not tampered with content so much as seen to it that a '90s audience could relate comfortably to the '50s context.

So this fairy-tale musical is what it always was: the tall story of middle-aged Joe Boyd (Dennis Kelly), fan of the losing Washington Senators, who is tempted by a Mephistophelian fellow named Applegate (Victor Garber) into winning the pennant once for his beloved Senators.

The trade-off is that Joe must leave without telling his wife (a classy Linda Stephens). The payoff is that he's transformed into youthful baseball ace Joe Hardy (played by a winning Jere Shea).

Joe has an out, but that sly devil Applegate does his damnedest to make sure Joe can't use it, which includes placing Lola (Bebe Neuwirth), that temptress from Hell, in his path. It's all fun and games in which no one gets burned, despite all the fire and brimstone.

The company exudes the right combination of innocence and energy, with a well-chosen array of motley physical types playing the well-meaning if blundering Senators. Dick Latessa is their blustery coach and the enterprising Vicki Lewis is that nosy sports reporter Gloria Thorpe.

But this is ensemble work. No one here is conspicuously doing a star turn, although Garber's tart delivery and and raised eyebrows feed the elitist brittleness of the dapper Applegate, Shea has that requisite mix of eagerness, innocence and melancholy as Joe Hardy, and Neuwirth's sexy Lola is, well, very Neuwirth: all legs, languor, lusciousness and lather.

In the absence of anything more substantial, O'Brien rightly goes for the fantasy, with set designer Douglas W. Schmidt providing a caricatured collection of quaint and garish 1950s interiors. His distortions could be even broader since "Damn Yankees" is nothing if not tongue-in-cheek smoke and mirrors--something lighting designer David F. Segal understands well.

But you can't make a silk play out of a pennant year. On a scale of 10 to zero, "Damn Yankees" as composed and written is about a four-hitter. Except for the highlights mentioned, the Adler-Ross score is more serviceable than memorable, though it gets a lift here from Douglas Besterman's spirited orchestrations.

The sound itself needs to be fuller. There are 10 musicians in the pit now, but if the show goes to Broadway on schedule in the spring, that number will grow.

Can the show play the Broadway league? Well, revivals are in, and the successful ones ("Guys and Dolls," "Crazy for You," "Most Happy Fella," "She Loves Me") offer encouragement. They also offer a lesson O'Brien has heeded: the importance of respecting rather than reinventing material.

The cautionary note is that "Damn Yankees" cannot be a great musical: Just uncomplicated, undemanding entertainment, and sometimes that's enough. There is talk of extending the show's San Diego run, possibly to the end of the year, which can only sharpen its game.

* "Damn Yankees," Old Globe Theatre, Simon Edison Center for the Performing Arts, Balboa Park, San Diego. Tuesdays-Sundays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends Nov. 14. $22-$32; (619) 239-2255. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes. Linda Stephens: Meg Boyd

Dennis Kelly: Joe Boyd

Victor Garber: Applegate

Jere Shea: Joe Hardy

Dick Latessa: Van Buren

Vicki Lewis: Gloria Thorpe

Terrence P. Currier: Welch

Susan Mansur: Sister

Bebe Neuwirth: Lola

Scott Wise, Jeff Blumenkrantz, Gregory Jbara, Jim Borstelmann, Scott Robertson, Michael Winther, Cory English, Bruce Anthony Davis, Michael Berresse, Paula Leggett Chase, Nancy Ticotin, Julia Gregory Senators, Reporters, Court Personnel, Hospital Volunteers, Fans.

A revival of the 1955 musical based on the Douglass Wallop novel, "The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant." Book George Abbott, Douglass Wallop. Book revisions Jack O'Brien. Music and lyrics Richard Adler, Jerry Ross. Director Jack O'Brien. Choreography Rob Marshall. Sets Douglas W. Schmidt. Lights David F. Segal. Costumes David C. Woolard. Sound Jeff Ladman. Special effects Kevin T. Brueckner. Magic consultant Marshall Magoon. Assistant director Will Roberson. Orchestrator Douglas Besterman. Musical director/Vocal arranger James Raitt. Production stage manager Douglas Pagliotti. Stage manager Maria Carrera.

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