KAYSVILLE — Whether you call it a 4-bagger, a tater, a dinger, or a homer, Hopebox Theatre has hit it. This production of the Faust story (with music and lyrics by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, and book by George Abbott and Douglas Wallop) satisfies at just about every level. This Damn Yankees is community theatre at (very close to) its best.
Here’s the story: Joe Boyd (played by Donald Eisenbarth) sells his soul to the Devil, a.k.a. Mr. Applegate, for “one long-ball hitter” to lift the hapless Washington Senators over the hated Yankees. Mr. Applegate (Bradley Hatch) transforms Joe into that hero, “Shoeless Joe” Hardy (Cody Eisenbarth), but just at that critical, last game of the season, Mr. Applegate changes him back. Mr. Applegate’s devilish intent is to drive the fans to suicide, but Joe’s grit, determination, and basic goodness thwart the Tempter’s plans and (almost) all ends well.
Leading off, the audience was in for a treat as Meg’s (Jeanine Creager) strong opening solo, “Six Months Out of Every Year,” segued seamlessly into a powerful ensemble number, full of fire and energy. This number was beautifully choreographed by an ensemble that was strong up and down the lineup. This splash is followed by Joe’s poignant farewell to Meg, “Goodbye, Old Girl,” promising that he will return some day.
The heart of the lineup is the baseball team of course, but the players double as ensemble in other scenes. The transitions are as smooth as Tinkers to Evers to Chance (or “O’Brien to Ryan to Goldberg,” if your tastes run to Gene Kelley musicals). These transitions involve multiple complete costume changes, accomplished without an error by costume designer Jeffrey Black.
Here’s the starting lineup: Taylor Wells as Rocky, Stefan Kurzius as Smokey, Tom Rudd as Sohovik (kudos for his vaguely Middle-European accent), Christian Seiter as Henry, and Phil Tuckett as Eddie. The team is managed by the redoubtable Van Buren, played by Dustin Young. Brent Johnson as the Commissioner and Jackie Barrett (also the sound designer) as Miss Weston fill out the baseball organization.
When the team needs partners for the snappy and clever dance routines supplied by Bailee DeYoung, all the women rally round, led by intrepid girl reporter Gloria Thorpe (Brittany Carroll), and mega-fans Doris (Wendy Greenman, with a gritty accent), and Sister (Kathi Luke). These routines are bright and clever, well within the abilities of the cast, and completely satisfying.
Then there’s the set. Hopebox is a little theater, adapted from something else, so it takes some creativity to fit a baseball park into a 40-foot square space. Set designer (and director) Kyle Esposito pulls off the squeeze play, keeping the newspaper backdrops in place, while letting the home plate heroics play out off stage. The pacing of some of these effects by sound designer Barrett and sound operator Mark Pozzouli could stand attention, but they got the point across, with one critical exception I’ll mention below.
Beyond the ensemble, the cast is fairly well-balanced. Hatch as Mr. Applegate merits special mention for his singing and acting. “Those Were the Good Old Days” is a show-stopper, as Hatch wanders through the audience, playing it like Nero’s fiddle. Dede Williams plays his partner in crime, Lola, to perfection. She gives the other show-stopper when teaming up with Tuckett for a double play dance number at the end of Act I, “Who’s Got the Pain?”
Williams delivers the sex appeal required for the role, but also shows the vulnerability of a lost soul where that was required. As Joe Hardy exercises his escape clause to elude Applegate’s clutches, Lola exits through the opposite side of the stage, giving the audience some hope that she gets out of the hot box as well.
Damn Yankees is a nostalgia trip for those of us who lived thru the mid-20th century domination of major league baseball by the pin-striped Bombers from the Bronx. The authentic play-by-play recordings used to cover set changes brought back those memories, but at one point the play uses play-by-play to describe Joe Hardy’s change back to Joe Boyd. Perhaps because I was so used to the Mel Allen in the background, I didn’t pay enough attention to this description of the action until it was too late. Fortunately, Van Buren comes in the next scene to go over it again, but it could have been made much clearer than it was. Applegate’s materialization and the first transformation were so well done, that the change back was a bit of a let-down.
Damn Yankees is the most hopeful of the Faust tellings, partly because Joe isn’t selling his soul for himself, but for the depressed anti-Yankee millions. It’s a sacrifice in a way that Faust’s never was, and it’s hopeful because Joe escapes in the end, as the pull of family delivers him from the Devil’s clutches. In the end, Meg and Joe sing of their love, drowning out Applegate’s attempt to reclaim Joe’s soul.