REVIEW: "DAMN YANKEES" — Musical Theatre West @ Carpenter Performing Arts Center

Updated: Oct 30

An Old-Fashioned Faustian Fable with a Baseball Twist


MAYBE you thought that was a heat wave that hit town two weeks ago? We prefer to think it was Musical Theatre West’s sizzling production of "Damn Yankees," one of the hottest and heartiest we’ve seen in a musical in years. And if that isn't what warmed the weather, it should certainly do a lot to warm you, as they close out their homerun production this weekend.


For a bit over two hours last night, the La Mirada stage was magically transformed to Fenway Park, inhabited by a slick devil, a baseball star hitter, his delightfully engaging song and dance team mates, some funny fans, and a lithe temptress full of shimmying seduction named Lola, who slithers through some seriously hot dance moves.


Jeff Skowron and Norman Large in Musical Theatre West's Production of Damn Yankees

“Damn Yankees,” 1955, played to 1, 019 performances on Broadway and won 7 Tony Awards including Best Musical. Staged in classical Broadway style, including a variety of trunk songs with show specific numbers as well as cornball humor, the musical richly entertains on several levels. The story is set up as a musical fable that uses baseball as the hook, and it’s only the second show (Pajama Game, 1954) that the team of Richard Adler and Jerry Ross penned. It’s also the show that solidified Bob Fosse as a Broadway choreographer of the highest order.


A fanatical middle-aged Washington Senator baseball fan, Joe Boyd, wants his team to beat the New York Yankees so much that he’d sell his soul to the devil in order for that to happen. Suddenly, a dubious Mr. Applegate appears with an offer to turn couch potato Joe into strapping 22-year-old Joe Hardy — the greatest slugger baseball has ever seen — who would lead the Senators to win the championship.


The Cast of Musical Theatre West's Production of Damn Yankees

Joe and the Devil make a deal but only after Joe demands an escape clause where he could conditionally return home to his wife at the end of the league season. In no time at all, all-American boy Joe Hardy quickly become the humble star who ignites the team toward victory, to the chagrin of Mr. Applegate, who is determined to corrupt the innocent player and win his soul in the end. Throw in the femme fatale Lola for a little insurance, with the power to corrupt any man, and no one is safe from their clutches.


Starring in this MTW cast of grand slam talent is Jeff Skowron as Mr. Applegate (Broadway’s “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” “The Lion King,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Bad Santa 2”); Norman Large as Joe Boyd (“Star Trek,” Broadway’s “Les Miserables,” “Cats”). James Olivas plays Joe Hardy (“Kinky Boots” at the Hollywood Bowl, “American Horror Stories,” “Encore! with Kristen Bell”), and Teri Bibb is Meg (“The Phantom of the Opera,” Broadway and National Tour); Broadway star and Olivier award-winning musical theater performer Lesli Margherita (“Man of La Mancha,” “Zorro, The Musical”) is Lola, who had audiences laughing and cheering for the soft-hearted seductress.


Norman Large, Teri Bibb and James Olivas in Musical Theatre West's Production of Damn Yankees

Simplicity is the key to success with a show that harkens back to a simpler lifetime, and Kevin Clowes and his set design team make basic structures that transform the setting from the dugout of the Washington Ball Park to a quaint and cozy Chevy Chase home with ease. The same brilliant approach is applied to the work of Costume Designer Amy Setterlund: Crisp, ball club uniforms juxtapose sweetly against the sensible 50’s fashion of the poodle and dirndl dresses, tea-length swing dresses with cardigan sweaters and Peter Pan collar blouses, and sparkly red-themed ensembles for the underworld. The dancing, under the direction of choreographer Alexis Carra Girbés, is spectacular, and it's fully supported by a fifteen-member orchestra under ace music director Matthew Smedal.


Production standouts go to “Two Lost Souls,” “Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, MO,” “Heart,” a fast-moving “Who’s Got the Pain?” and a very seductive “Whatever Lola Wants.” Applegate reminiscences “Those Were the Good Old Days” in a pure vaudeville-infused number with apoplectic grimaces and smoldering burns that used to be Paul Lynde's stock in trade (with just a hint of Al Jolson)n as the adroit Mr. Skowron struts his amazing talent here to our delight.


The Ensemble Cast in Musical Theatre West's Production of Damn Yankees

As the sultry handmaiden of the Devil, who is given the critical job of vamping a Cinderella rookie on the Washington Senators into forgetting his old place by the home fire, swivel-jointed siren Lesli Margherita lights up the stage in a fashion that is rare and refreshing for the role of Lola, manufacturing her own strong brand of sex, even while gleefully lampooning all the basic techniques of the vamp.


Indeed, although brilliant as a dancer and at heating the atmosphere, Ms. Margherita is also an exceptional comedienne. When she sings "A Little Brains, a Little Talent," describing the assets that a lady should have to seduce a man, it is comedy of an order that is so many levels above the ordinary run of stage humor that it comes like a summer breeze. But when she travesties the techniques of seduction in "Whatever Lola Wants," she's as torrid as a West Indian wiggler.


Lesli Margherita and James Olivas in Musical Theatre West's Production of Damn Yankees

Mr. Olivas, gorgeous of voice, humble in manner and skilled as an actor, is fully believable as the come-from-nowhere Wheaties box baseball star able to galvanize first a team, then a country. He provides an enormous display of innocence, while realizing that he may not have made the best decision to follow the devil with his rendition of "A Man Doesn't Know." And, even though he has a voice that could silence an umpire, Mr. Olivas doesn't let strength overpower the traces of his middle-aged self, who continues to pine sweetly for his spouse.


Journalist Gloria Thorpe (Lora Lee Gayer) sells the role of newshound Gloria Thorpe with complete brassy professionalism, and kicks up her heels with a lively, acrobatic ensemble of baseball players in the razzle-dazzle song and dance, "Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, MO." Norman Large also bats a thousand in his Old Joe portrayal with an exquisite "Goodbye, Old Girl." And several wild, gut-busting moments of this production are furnished by rabid Red Sox rooters, Sister (Julia Cardia) and Doris (Katie Brown), especially in the “Heart” reprise at the end of Act One.


The Ensemble Cast in Musical Theatre West's Production of Damn Yankees

Matthew Henersen is solid as Van Buren, the genial, white-haired manager of the Senators, leading “Heart.” Standouts amongst the ballplayers are Daniel John O’Connor and Josh Alvarez as dim-bulb teammates Rocky and Smokey, who lead the standout act two number "The Game."


The whole show really knocks it out of the park…and since baseball season ended officially the first week of October, this show would definitely be a very happy alternative.


MUSICAL THEATRE WEST PRESENTS, DAMN YANKEES — Book by George Abbott and Douglass Wallop, based on Mr. Wallop's novel "The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant;" Music & Lyrics by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross; Direction by Cynthia Ferrer (MTW’s “The Little Mermaid,” “Georgia Rule,” “Martial Law”); Music Direction by Matthew Smedal (Music Director/Conductor of Jerry Zaks' Broadway musical “Mrs. Doubtfire,” off-Broadway’s “Clueless”); Choreography by Alexis Carra Girbés (FX’s “Fosse/Verdon,” Fosse 1st National Tour, “Wicked,” “Sweet Charity,” and “The Pirate Queen”). Scenic Design by Kevin Clowes; Lighting Design by Paul Black; Sound Design by Julie Ferrin; Costume Design by Amy Setterlund; Production Stage Manager Jill Gold.


CAST:

Jeff Skowron – Applegate; Lesli Margherita – Lola; James Olivas - Joe Hardy; Teri Bibb – Meg; Norman Large - Joe Boyd; Aurelia Michael-Holmgren - Gloria Thorpe; Matthew Henersen - Van Buren; Kevin Symons – Welch; Julie Cardia – Sister; Katie Brown – Doris; Daniel John O'Connor – Rockey; Julian Xavier – Vernon; Josh Alvarez – Smokey; Brandon Keith Rogers - Henry, Guard, u/s Joe Hardy; Quintan Craig - Lowe, Lynch, Postmaster; Richard Bulda - Ballplayer, u/s Van Buren; Cedric Dodd - Bouley / Dance Captain; Logan Rice – Bryant; Alejandro MullerDahlberg – Mickey; Marissa Ruth Mayer - Ensemble, u/s Lola, Doris; Monika Peña - Ensemble, u/s Gloria, Sister.


Performance dates are October 14 – October 30, 2022 at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center on the campus of CSU Long Beach. Tickets start at $20 and are available for purchase by phone at 562-856-1999 or online at musical.org.


Chris Daniels

Arts & Entertainment Reviewer

The Show Report

www.theshowreport.org


Photo Credits: Caught in the Moment