Blessed little in McLean Community Players’ production of the 1950s trophy piece by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, book by George Abbott and Douglass Wallop. It’s a Faustian tale of baseball fanatic Joe Boyd, whose winsome and lose ’em all Washington Senators can do no right. Cursing at the TV and ignoring his long-suffering wife one night, Joe proclaims he’d “sell his soul for a long ball hitter.” On cue appears the devil, Mr. Applegate. (Aptly named: Think of the red apple, a symbol for original sin, plus a gate swinging like a moral pendulum — heaven’s gate or the gates of hell? The “Gate” suffix is also modern-day code for scandal and corruption, which goes to show how enduring is this show, as art reinterpreted).
Applegate takes Joe up on his offer, trading old Joe for a sure ace, Joe Hardy. But Joe’s no dummy. As a real estate pro, he demands an escape clause, like Cinderella’s at the ball. The magic can be undone at midnight on the eve of the pennant game, but Joe’s penchant for home gives Applegate a devil of a time collecting on the deal. Devil’s advocate Lola, whom no red-blooded man can resist, is drafted to keep Joe on their side.
In Bill Glikbarg‘s set design, Joe’s home base is not well-delineated. An undressed set feels emergency-room sterile rather than homey, with what looks like a privacy drape and swinging industrial door. At my performance there was a lack of sound balance that had my ears straining during the ensemble’s opening lament, Six Months Out of Every Year. But have heart. Veterans Hans Bachmann (old Joe) and Mike Baker Jr. (Applegate) are just warming up. This show is damn well sung; the players’ lineup, a true fantasy team.
Acting adonis Bachmann counterbalances Baker’s devil with a voice from God. Old Joe’s signoff song, “Goodbye Old Girl,” makes the venue throb. Then young Joe Tim Adams steps up to the plate, keeping the vocal-nectar dreamboat afloat. Adams’ range seems as limitless as his character’s athletic prowess; he plays fidgety, feisty and forlorn with the finesse of both an Everyman and a suave showman.
Not your average Joes, and they aren’t the only diamonds on display. Utility player Russell Silber proves a pillar of the fit ensemble. His gum-cracking Rocky finds a throwback “Who’s On First?” vibe alongside Todd Paul’s doltish, crossword-loving Smokey. Silber later trades cleats for soft shoe as Lola’s sidekick dancer in “Who’s Got the Pain?” Both roles fit him like a signed, leather glove. He adds muscle to “Heart,” sung rousingly with Paul, Jerry Hoffman and Bob Ashby (coach Benny Van Buren). The venerable Ashby moves seamlessly from pep talk to upbeat singing, giving the show an earthy grounding and transporting us from auditorium to ballpark. Frankly, all we need are ushers selling beer and hotdogs in the aisles.
Above- and below-ground, Baker glows as the devil, with a chilling laugh and chill demeanor. He slithers in his dark rat-pack suit that is splotched with red accents at the start but reddens over the course of the evening, along with his icy, flaring temper.
Costumer Richard Battistelli’s bleeding motif runs in reverse with Lola’s siren look: She steadily loses the red as she grows more sympathetic toward her human prey. Interestingly, the role made famous by redhead Gwen Verdon is commandeered here by a brunette vixen, Annie Ermlick. The rest of the cast seems dominated by redheads, whether wigged-out or natural — Janette Moman champions a ballsy reporter, who unwittingly plays into the devil’s game by trying to dig up a backstory on “Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, MO.” But none is as ginger as Ermlick. Leggy and limber, she projects a timeless appeal, matching the savvy of her centuries-old character in limbo. She vibrates with electricity, whether as a vamp in spikes or palsy-walsy gidget in imagined stretch Capris.
Kim Thornley’s bitty old bat Doris, though, is a close runner-up in the sex-appeal department. The cartoonish duo of Thornley and Lauren Laird (Sister) supply a side-splitting, bawdville, Lucy-and-Ethel shtick. Shout-out to husband-wife directing team Kevin and Pamela McCormack, who seem to get whatever they want out of their mature cast. The cast shines so brightly, in fact, lighting cues can be damned.
“Sick with the heat” choreography by Kathleen McCormack, the directors’ daughter, is showcased in “Two Lost Souls” in Act Two, along with Adams’ and Ermlick’s tight harmonies. DiMaggio and Marilyn have nothing on this pair.
Outfitted in ballcaps and jerseys, the orchestra assembled by Music Coordinator Lori Roddy and coached by Music Director John Edward Niles looks as badass as they sound. Long set changes on opening night were pardonable because they afforded time for unexpected encores. Another audience treat are sing-along interludes of the national anthem and a seventh-inning stretch of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”
Battistelli knocks it out of the park with his vintage, vibrant and perky costumes, with few errors. Where are Applegate’s red socks? Why do the “W’s” on the baseball uniforms look chintzy? The biggest letdown is the opening get-up on Barbara Cobb-Jepperson, who plays doting, attention-starved wife Meg; her sassy frock screams Carmen Miranda, not Donna Reed. As the mambo-Latin-jazz score reminds us, it takes two to tango, but things feel tepid between Cobb-Jepperson and her Joes. Without those burning embers in the home fires – maybe a hint of recognition as she looks into the eyes of her rejuvenated love — much of the show’s therapeutic tension and tenderness get lost. We find ourselves rooting more for the Senators than a lovers’ reunion.
But thoughtful slide projections, such as a photo of endless rows of stadium seats extending from the orchestra seats, drive home the notion that even if one can’t have a love for all seasons, at least a happy marriage of sports and theater is achievable. Remember, D.C.-area sports widows and widowers: “Take me out to the ballgame” contains the phrase “Take me out!” And for date night, MCP’s Damn Yankees is a win-win.
Running Time: Two hours and thirty minutes, plus a 15-minute intermission.
Damn Yankees plays through July 28, 2013, at McLean Community Players, at The Alden Theatre – 1234 Ingleside Avenue, in McLean, VA. For tickets, call (703) 790-9223, or order them online.