Saturday, October 8, 2011

Damn Yankees a Hell of a Good Time

By James E. Trainor III

Cedar Rapids - Joe Boyd (Greg Smith) will do anything to see the Washington Senators win the pennant. Literally. The trouble is, those damn Yankees are practically unbeatable. So when the mysterious Mr. Applegate (Mike Wilhelm) shows up and offers him a chance not only to be young again but to lead the Senators to victory, Joe thinks it's a hell of a deal.

There's one catch, though. Joe's a real estate agent, and he won't take the deal without negotiating an "escape clause," meaning, if he can win the World Series before September 24th, he can steal home to his wife and save his soul.

What follows is a funny and energetic musical in the 1950s style, full of singing, dancing, one-liners, and amusing set pieces. TCR's production is really solid in its direction; this kind of show is difficult to pull off because the sheer number of scene transitions can really kill the pace. It kept moving along, however, at an energetic clip, due to Trevor Debth's insightful direction and a solid backstage crew.

TCR's Damn Yankees is a fun, flashy musical that showcases a number of really great ensemble performances. The ensemble cast is quite engaged and a lot of fun to watch, especially Zach Parker, Jay Burken, Rick Titus and Tracie Hodina. The jokes all land, the orchestra is peppy, and the energy doesn't really die down until intermission.

The only real problem with the show is somewhat inherent in the plot. The main character, Joe, just doesn't seem fleshed out very well. Of course, there's not a lot of room for character growth in an old-school musical, but he didn't seem as believable as some of the others onstage. He's not portrayed as a crafty go-getter who can outsmart the devil; he seems a little greedy, a little static, and a little unlikable. After all, he jumped at Applegate's deal in a hurry, and he changes his mind just as quickly. All he really has going for him is his undying loyalty to his wife, which is of course a good thing. I guess part of the point of the show is to square off simple honest Good with fast and flashy Evil, but I feel even Joe could use a bit of pizazz.

Greg Smith's performance at the beginning (and end) is very sincere and his songs are very soulful. Casey Prince is good as the young Joe - he is particularly generous as a scene partner in scenes with Wilhem and Jordan Hougham (who plays the supernatural seductress Lola), and his voice fits the part perfectly, very sweet and pure. However, as the heart of the piece he comes off as a little cold and static. Again, the text might have something to do with this: Joe doesn't really get out of the bargain by himself; he is saved by his unwitting wife and Lola (who has a change of heart). All he has to do is play baseball with the skills Mr. Applegate gave him in the first place.

Fortunately, we don't come see Damn Yankees just for Joe. The show's strength lies in its ensemble of silly ballplayers and eager fans, and of course its smooth, sexy and altogether hilarious villains, Mr. Applegate and Lola.

Mike Wilhlem is definitely the MVP here. His Applegate is slick, sadistic, and a whole lot of fun. He pursues his objective with a tireless devil-may-care attitude and it's funny to watch him get hot under the collar when he's foiled. When he sings his solo number "Those Were the Good Old Days," he really knocks it out of the park. Wilhelm is a creative and resourceful theatre artist, and it's a joy to see him nail a role like this.

Jordan Hougham is also a great team player. Her Lola is smooth, graceful, and very funny. Many of the most entertaining moments in the show come after she enters. First Applegate sets her to seduce Joe, then she switches teams and gulls Applegate. Hougham works quite well with both Prince and Wilhelm, and she brings a lot of creativity to the plate that livens up the whole piece. Her "Whatever Lola Wants, Lola Gets" comes with a quirky businesslike quality that belies the cliche of the seduction game. It's a lot of laughs.

The production values on Damn Yankees are really a sight. The lights (by Derek Easton) do a great job giving us a clear sense of time and place, as well as a little atmosphere. The set (by Scott Olinger) was also quite evocative, transporting us to the baseball field (or a 1950s living room), while being functional enough to enable quick scene changes. It also allowed for Joe's magical transformations to go off without a hitch. The choreography (Trevor Debth) was energetic and creative; it used the entire stage and showcased the variety of talent in the ensemble quite well.

The costumes (by Joni Sackett) are at once nostalgic and really fresh. Particularly good designs were for the potbellied Old Joe and the virile Young Joe, the suave boardroom evil of Mr. Applegate, and the collection of zany ensembles worn by the succubus Lola. The Senators were well-designed as well, and really gave Damn Yankees a touch of nostalgic Americana.

Damn Yankees runs until October 29th at the Iowa Theatre Building, 102 3rd St SE in Cedar Rapids. More information here.

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