Modeled after the 1955 original, and directed and choreographed by Richard Jessup, The Shedd’s current production of the American classic Damn Yankees feels like a real baseball game, but with more jazz hands.
Home runs, over-the-shoulder catches, errors and strikeouts — even the pacing is baseball-slow at times. Several reprises will leave you longing for the trimmed up ’90s revival. Or maybe you’re a purist, in which case The Shedd lives up to its orthodox ways and everyone lives happily ever after.
It’s a familiar story: Faust meets Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” when die-hard Washington Senators fan Joe Boyd (Ward Fairbairn, as the older, and Dylan Stasack, as the younger Joe) sells his soul to the Devil for a winning season, leaving behind his unfulfilled wife, Meg (Cindy Kenny). It’s all very wholesome and weird.
Stasack is a powerhouse, reaching the very back corners of the Jacqua Concert Hall with his vocal prowess. He and Kenny share a pair of sweet duets in “Near to You” and “A Man Doesn’t Know.”
Ron Daum is a moderately sinister Mr. Applegate in maroon pinstripes. Kara Churchill is vivid and funny as the awkward and outspoken Sister.
The pinch-hitting Kenady Conforth plays the campy vixen Lola with fierce, hip-swinging vivaciousness. You will understand Stasack’s pained expression in “Whatever Lola Wants” when you realize she is only 16, though her talent for theater and dance far exceeds her total driving experience.
Much of the highlight reel is in the choreography. Jessup infuses Fosse jazz, ballet and modern dance, effectively offsetting the slower dramatic scenes. The Washington Senators take their turns leaping in grand jetes across the stage. Conforth and Jim Ballard show off their impressive dance skills, rolling and honking like mamboing birds in “Who’s Got the Pain?”
The late second-act number “Two Lost Souls” looks and feels like The Shining’s red-tabled restaurant meets Audrey Hepburn’s barroom dance in Funny Face.
The set design by Jim Ralph and Connie Huston, along with Jamie Parker’s costume design, is transformative. Pink countertops and cabinets, advertising painted allusions, black-and-white checkered skirts, baggy baseball pants with duck-billed hats — artful callbacks to the homogeny of domesticity. I don’t entirely understand America’s obsession with the ’50s, but I get the love affair with a polka dot pin-up dress.
Aside from a few bloopers, like the infuriating door frame everyone fumbled with during Act I, the cast and crew really gets the crowd going with heartfelt enthusiasm.
The show is not an easy one. The pieces fit together like a patchwork of classical theater and variety sketch comedy. Much like my own writing, it is an editor’s nightmare. Fluff punctuated by humor with a sprinkling of interludes in between drawn out scenes: Not everything feels necessary.
Perhaps the lure of Damn Yankees is in the unconventional ways it is conventional. It doesn’t take Joe Boyd long to realize the grass is greener on the infield, which seems odd for plot purposes. The arc for him is short in comparison to the length of his journey, and yet we must go through the motions with him, one reprise at a time.
Who hasn’t entertained the idea of trading in one life for another? Even after we realize our mistake, we tend to cling to the sideshow long after our guts have twisted back from which they came.
Despite the flurry of diverting dance numbers, Damn Yankees is deeply human. Flawed and kind of beautiful, The Shedd leaves everything on the field.
The musical Damn Yankees is playing at The Shedd through July 21. Tickets and more info at TheShedd.org/damnyankees.