OGDEN — What can you do when the baseball team you love never quite performs? Do you give up? Learn to accept the losses? Defend your team to the end? What if you could be the solution? In Weber State’s production of the musical theatre classic Damn Yankees, longtime fan Joe Boyd (played by Christian Johnston) gets the chance to do just that. After another disappointing showing from his beloved Washington Senators, Joe shouts that he would “sell my soul for a long ball hitter” which would ensure the defeat of the Senators’ arch-rival, “those damn Yankees.”
Who should appear but the devilish Mr. Applegate (Colton Hattabaugh) with an offer to turn Joe the middle-aged real estate agent into a 22-year-old baseball wunderkind for the low, low price of his immortal soul. Skeptical but interested, Joe manages to finagle an escape clause into this Faustian agreement and sets off to follow his dream. With the help of the delightfully rakish Applegate, the new Joe—now Joe Hardy (and now played by Jason Baldwin)—quickly convinces the skeptical Senators to give him a shot. Soon Joe and his team are unstoppable. The only things standing in the way of a pennant win are the ticking clock on Joe’s deal (the escape clause expires the day before the final game) and Joe’s need to be near Meg (Erin Porter), the ever-stalwart wife he left behind. Oh, and there’s a little lady named Lola.
Based on the book The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant, the popular music and lyrics by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross and book by George Abbott and Douglas Wallop won seven Tony awards for its original Broadway run, and the movie version showcased then rising stage star Gwen Verdon and master choreographer Bob Fosse. This kind of pedigree can be hard to live up to, but veteran director Jim Christian channels all the vitality of his student cast into every aspect of this sixty-year old workhorse. Christian has assembled a truly impressive ensemble and effectively evokes a nostalgia for that technicolor bygone era of baseball stars and Broadway at its best. Porter, Johnston, and Baldwin have no problem belting out standards like “Six Months Out of Every Year,” “Goodbye, Old Girl,” and “A Man Doesn’t Know” like old pros. Hattabaugh is everything a gentleman devil should be: snarky, charming, and a little unnerving. Aside from the odd way he holds his cigarette, he is the perfect devil. Lola is the most iconic role, and Shelby Thomas is more than up for the challenge. She slinks her way through her numbers with just the right amount of mystery and sex appeal. While Thomas is a bombshell, some of her lyrics got lost as she seemed to strain for enough breath to sing. This was not helped by sound issues opening night that either caused microphones to be off or a loud buzzing every time the pre-recorded music swelled.
The true success of this production lies in its supporting ensemble. Colton Ward as the Senators’ grizzled manager Van Buren leads the team in the classic “Heart,” which was the highlight of the show for me. Amelia Rose Moore as plucky reporter Gloria Thorpe nailed “Shoeless Joe form Hannibal, Mo,” and she and Ward had the most palpable chemistry of any duo on stage. Equally enjoyable were Summer Sloan as Doris and Camrey Bagley as Sister, two of Meg’s friends from back home who are also devout baseball fans. The two ladies exemplified the art of character acting and made me wish they had more of a story. Additional standout performances were from Matt Baxter as Rocky and Matthew Clark Richards as Smokey. Towering above most of his cast-mates, Baxter could have easily been relegated to a size joke, but he makes Rocky a lovable oaf in the classic style MGM actor Jules Munshin. Richards and Baxter almost steal the show with “The Game,” even if some of the dated lyrics are uncomfortable to those with modern sensibilities. Also of note are ensemble members Mandie Wood Harris and Tanner Rampton, who made each of their several characters fresh and engaging.
Further selling this slice of the past were the outstanding design elements. Van Tinkham‘s set effectively created the eleven locations needed with believable vintage flair. Lighting designer William Peterson provided the right amount of Hollywood ambiance while still giving theatrical oomph, and Costume designer Katie Rogel and hair and makeup designer Karrie Randall authentically outfitted the cast of almost 30 with fun and vibrancy.
The script itself has some weaknesses in the second act, and some aspects of the show have not aged well. Moreover, there were some clunky and overall slow transitions and overlong dance breaks, and there were the aforementioned sound issues. The score provides many opportunities to showcase choreography, but the choreography (not credited) for this production, while clever and unbeholden to the iconic Fosse style, was never quite impressive enough to fill the long gaps between song verses. The cast is talented, but they never seem to have quite enough movement to complete. This and the occasional static blocking during ‘big’ songs makes the two and a half hour run time a bit of a test of butt endurance.
Overall, this was a sophisticated student production. The actors and designers under Christian’s direction have produced a show well-worth seeing. There is some adult content that would not be suitable for young children, but the message and overall plot is wholesome and heartwarming.