Damn Yankees

by Les Spindle

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday October 20, 2015

Katheryne Penny and the ball players
Katheryne Penny and the ball players  

Having a dual passion for baseball and Broadway isn't necessarily a prerequisite to enjoying the golden-age musical classic, "Damn Yankees," but it certainly helps. This 1955 stage hit reteamed most of the illustrious creators of an earlier Broadway smash "The Pajama Game."

The "Yankees" creative quartet consisted of composer-lyricist partners Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, and librettist partners George Abbott and Douglass Wallop.

Both "The Pajama Game" and "Damn Yankees" became memorable Hollywood films, the former starring Doris Day and John Raitt, and the latter starring Tab Hunter and Gwen Verdon.

"Damn Yankees" is a sparkling comedy-fantasy that combines a sprightly and saucy narrative with a dazzling array of show tunes, further bolstered by show-stopping dance numbers that were originally conceived and staged by the immortal Bob Fosse.

The venerable Cabrillo Music Theatre in Thousand Oaks has lavished TLC on this evergreen Broadway hit, in a production boasting a sparkling array of performances, a handsome production design, and a full measure of musical delights and comic mirth.

Wrapping one's head around a Broadway confection that takes a key part of its narrative inspiration from the ancient dark legend of Faust (the man who sold his soul to the devil, in exchange for personal success and fame) sounds like a bit of a challenge until this clever tongue-in-cheek romp casts its spell. Neither the competitive world of professional sports nor the ominous notion of eternal damnation have seemed quite the same since this goofily jubilant musical first cast its spell.

Middle-aged Joe Boyd (John Atkins) is a voracious Washington Senators fan, who always neglects his loyal wife Meg (Sarah Tattersall) throughout the annual six months of competition between the Senators and the New York Yankees. Joe becomes a couch potato plopped in front of the TV set, while poor Meg deals with the loneliness. But be careful what you wish for. Joe's offhand comment one night that if the Yankees had a star hitter and could win the Pennant, he would sell his soul to the devil leads to unexpected results.

Enter a fast-talking stranger with an attitude, and a vaudevillian flair, in the person of Mr. Applegate (John Sloman), a Mephistopheles-like scamp, who promises to grant Joe's wish. He magically transforms middle-aged Joe Boyd into strapping young Joe Hardy (Travis Leland). Per Applegate's plan, Joe leaves a note for Meg, saying he is taking an extensive trip for his job, and sets about becoming the star Senators hitter who hopefully will finally carry the team to victory.

Another key character is sultry temptress Lola (Renťe Marino), a devilish sorceress who sets about seducing Joe Hardy, to distract him from his yearning to give up the mission and return to Meg.

The characterizations and vocalizations by the lead players and large supporting cast are first rate (including the spirited team of ball players, who sparkle in big song-and-dance numbers, highlighted by the irresistible classic "Heart"). Atkins delights as the morally conflicted elder Joe, while Leland is an utter charmer as his young counterpart.

Sloman delights as the devious devil, at his best in the vaudeville-styled showstopper "The Good Old Days." Marino's Lola is a powerhouse, particularly in the sizzling seduction number, "Whatever Lola Wants," a trademark number of the late, great Gwen Verdon, Fosse's spouse.

Among many other sterling portrayals are Tattersall's warm and beautifully sung take on Meg, Katheryne Penny as determined sob sister Gloria, who knocks "Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, Mo" out of the park, as she leads the glittering chorus line of hoofing jocks.

Director Kirsten Chandler stages the ambitious vehicle with aplomb, eliciting first-rate singing, dancing, and acting efforts, while keeping the show buoyantly entertaining, and intermittently touching. Choreographer John Todd does full justice to the elaborate dance numbers, which mix the flavor of classic Fosse with plenty of original touches. Design elements are superbly rendered. Cabrillo's delectable production is a home run all the way.

"Damn Yankees," runs through Oct. 25 at the Kavli Theatre, Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, 2100 Thousand Oaks Blvd., in Thousand Oaks. For information or tickets, call 800-745-3000 or visit www.cabrillomusictheatre.com.