As long as baseball is around, there will always be a place for Damn Yankees. While many scenes of camaraderie exist among the baseball players, the tale is really an unconventional love story.
A middle-aged baseball fan, Joe Boyd (Steve Gunderson) passionately follows the underdog team, the Washington Senators, but Joe’s intense devotion annoys his loyal wife, Meg Boyd (Tracy Ray Reynolds).
Joe is oblivious to his spouse’s aggravation, and hopes that the Senators can win a game against the New York Yankees, even if that means selling his soul. On learning of this, Satan, aka Applegate (Neil Dale, usually accompanied by Nate Parde’s hellish red lighting), makes a deal with Joe.
Applegate agrees to turn Joe into a talented slugger, Joe Hardy (Chaz Feuerstine). The younger Joe can return to his older life, but only if he doesn’t play during the final Senators’ game of the season.
Joe Boyd’s journey, inspired by the book, “The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant,” is obviously not very realistic, and director James Vasquez, takes full advantage of this in San Diego Musical Theatre’s production at the Spreckels Theatre. Sean Fanning’s set is similar to a vintage comic strip.
Vasquez’s 1950’s setting is exaggerated, but without turning into satire. He takes the major characters seriously and lets the humor written by George Abbott and Douglass Wallop come from the personalities of the humans and Applegate. For example, Joe Boyd’s love of his team isn’t too different from that of modern sports junkies. Yet, the jokes never make him seem like a clueless or oafish buffoon.
While there is no baseball action, it is the dialogue and singing that defines Damn Yankees. However, Janet Pitcher’s costumes for Senators players Joe Hardy, Sohovik (dance captain, Luke Harvey Jacobs) and Smokey (Lafras le Roux) look like those of an actual team.
When they play, Kevin Anthenill’s sports-themed audio gets audiences invested in the team’s attempts to become victorious. Anthenill’s sound on opening night did, unfortunately, made certain spoken and sung lines in the script difficult to understand.
Abbott and Wallop’s dialogue does openly embrace America’s pastime, which helps keep theatregoers invested in the evening. However, certain segments may be too devoted to baseball history.
Nowhere is this more evident than when a player is framed for being an immoral criminal. On first viewing, the purpose of the false information might seem tacked on to create unnecessary conflict. This aspect of the show would be appreciated on a deeper level if San Diegans have a little more familiarity with the infamous Black Sox scandal.
What really matters is the love triangle between Joe, Meg and Applegate’s dangerously sensual “homewrecker,” Lola (Leslie Stevens). Although one is not really meant to root for Lola, Feuerstine and Stevens have a fun rapport onstage.
Several musical numbers written by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross beautifully focus on the adoration that Meg and Joe Boyd have for each other. Songs such as “Goodbye, Old Girl,” “Near to You” and “A Man Doesn’t Know (Reprise)” benefit from an excellent orchestra led by conductor Don LeMaster, and emotive singing from Gunderson, Reynolds and Feuerstine.
Several performers get a big solo number to raise the energy at the Downtown San Diego venue. Dale brings wicked wit to “Those Were the Good Old Days.” He isn’t the only one who has a scene-stealing song.
David Kirk Grant, as Senators’ manager Van Buren, and Katie Sapper as the reporter, Gloria, joyously croon the crowd-pleasing tunes “Heart” and “Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, Moe.” The latter number also features Jill Gorrie’s most ambitious choreography, with juggling and plenty of somersaults.
An issue with the book for Damn Yankees, in today’s environment, is the way the interpretation treats women. Meg can seem like a naïve housewife and Lola is meant to be a deadly object of desire. However, Reynolds and Stevens elevate the material by not simplifying their personalities.
Invigorating melodies and earnest pathos are the fuel for the famous love letter to a timeless game. Whether you’re like Joe Boyd or have never swung a bat, the night is a highly entertaining one.