MAGNA — Back to The Empress, a now-familiar place for me. Having reviewed two other shows here, I am now a fan and an adamant supporter. However, seeing the theatre only half full tells me that I haven’t done my job correctly. Why haven’t more people discovered this gem against the Oquirrhs?
Damn Yankees tells the story of Joe Boyd, later Joe Hardy, who sells his soul to the Devil in exchange for helping his favorite baseball team, The Washington Senators, win the pennant against those “Damn Yankees!” Joe, ever the smart one, tricks the Devil into allowing Joe an “escape clause,” just in case he changes his mind.
The show starts strong, with a cleverly choreographed, and vocally powerful ensemble number. However, once the solos came, the vocals became weaker. Joe Boyd (Lee Anderson, also the director) had a very touching ballad to his wife, Meg (Nancy Jensen). Or at least I assume it was touching. I couldn’t hear a thing. The dialect between ball players was mumbled, because there was no diction. The song listed in the program as “Shirtless Joe from Hannibal MO” was actually “SHOEless Joe…” The chemistry between characters was almost undetectable, except from the older, seasoned actors (Nancy Jensen and Lee Anderson).
In a surprisingly stand-out performance was Larissa Villers as our nosy, investigative reporter Gloria Thorpe. This character has conviction, tenacity, sass, and skills. I never doubted her. She picked up the slack in the scenes she was in, and compensated for the other actors lack of conviction. I give Ms. Villers two thumbs,way up! Mr. Applegate (aka the Devil) as played by Shawn Maxfield was sleazy alright, but in no way threatening. I got more of a “used car salesman” vibe from him, rather than the Lord of Darkness. There was NO character arc and no development. Last, but not least, was Lola played by Erika Nelson. Lola is an iconic character, and many who aren’t familiar with the play Damn Yankees are familiar with “Whatever Lola Wants,” her showcase number. In the story, Lola is a hired-hand of sorts, for the Devil. Her job is too seduce unsuspecting souls, thereby helping her boss. Unfortunately, while Ms. Nelson was gorgeous, had legs up to her neck, and provided stunning vocals, there was no sexuality to her at all. I’d compare her more to the High School Prom Queen, than a siren, a vixen, or a harpy for Old Scratch.
This play is set in the 1950’s. However, one directing choice made by Lee Anderson was to update some of the lines to reflect more modern times. For example, the Devil whines about his life by saying he has to “. . . have lunch with Glenn Beck”. While you may enjoy the updates, they completely took me out of the play. I always feel that original writing of the author is the best way to go. If an update was the desired effect, it wouldn’t be difficult at all to take the entire play out of the time period, and bring it modern. This critique is a completely personal one.
This being opening night, I was waiting for the technical difficulties, the costume mishaps, the forgotten lines, and they were all there. The baseball players uniforms were awkwardly see-through. Lola lost her straps in one scene, and the scene changes took forever. I think the majority of my night was spent in the dark, in-between scenes, listening to the sound crew play the enter’acte music over-and-over. In the majority of the group dance numbers, the actors were looking around to the stronger dancers, to see what they were supposed to be doing. Also, note to the actors: Please, learn your lines, for our sake.
This show could probably use another two weeks of polished rehearsal. Also, as a caveat: This show uses “shock” pyrotechnics (used mainly to scare the audience) which the audience should have been informed about in advance. I’d encourage the management to say something prior to curtain to protect themselves from and legal issues as a result of using these effects. If you have any heart conditions or nervous disorders, you may want to pass on Damn Yankees. I’ve seen some excellent productions at the Empress, unfortunately, this wouldn’t be one of them.