SD Union Tribune Review: “Zippy staging makes ‘Damn Yankees’ swing” by James Hebert

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It takes nine players to make a baseball team, which means San Diego Musical Theatre could field an entire five-club division with the mob of actors and musicians the company suits up for its lively new revival of “Damn Yankees.”

That’s an impressive 45-strong company (plus a conductor who presumably could do DH duty in a pinch), and it’s a bold demonstration of why SDMT is in a league of its own here when it comes to midsize theaters doing polished, professional shows on a sprawling scale.

It’s also almost more than the fun but featherweight “Yankees” can take: For all the modest charms of its story and songs, this is a throwback of a show that has the sweetness and substance of cotton candy pitched by a hawker at the old ball yard.

But while the ’50s-vintage musical hasn’t been done here in years (despite the local pride behind a key 1993 Old Globe revival that went on to Broadway), SDMT’s versatile cast, James Vasquèz’s savvy direction and Jill Gorrie’s absolutely all-star-caliber choreography help make a case for the show’s place among at least the second string of great American classics.
Their work on the vibrant “Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, Mo.” — with a fleet team of players flipping bats and juggling balls, and cast member Katie Sapper (as the intrepid reporter Gloria) taking a breathtaking leap from the bleachers — makes this one of the more memorable numbers I’ve seen on any stage this year.

Couple that kind of pizzazz with Sean Fanning’s pleasingly cartoon-y, midcentury-minded set and the full, rich sounds of musical director/conductor Don LeMaster’s 21-member orchestra, and you’ve got a crackerjack summer stage confection.

George Abbott and Douglas Wallop’s story draws on the Faust legend as well as the mythology surrounding the New York Yankees and their perennially envious rivals. (Say what you will about the often insufferable Bronx Bombers, but does anyone really mutter “Damn Padres!” except the team’s own fans?)

When Washington Senators superfan Joe Boyd (played by the longtime San Diego acting ace Steve Gunderson) says in a weak moment that he’d do almost anything to see his boys beat the Yanks, the mysterious Applegate (a comically wheedling Neil Dale) materializes to offer a deal: Joe’s soul for a Senators pennant.

The best part — at least while the season lasts — is that Boyd gets to play a big part in the victory run: He’s transformed into Joe Hardy, a hot young phenom who’s batting over .500 by the show’s second act. That Joe is played by the boyishly appealing Chaz Feuerstine, who missed the pitch a bit at the end of his first number on opening night but warmed up nicely to give an excellent performance.

Of course, it all comes at the price of leaving behind his sainted wife, Meg (Tracy Ray Reynolds, a pleasing singer). When Joe makes noises about invoking an out clause to return to his old life, Applegate — whom you might know as Old Scratch, a name that has nothing to do with ballplayers’ personal habits — throws the hellaciously vampy Lola his way as a seductive distraction.

Leslie Stevens is an athletic and fetching marvel in the part, and turns in a winning rendition of “Whatever Lola Wants,” which — along with “Heart” (as in “You gotta have …”) — is one of the show’s signature songs.

Kevin Anthenill’s sound design is exceptionally sharp in the capacious Spreckels Theatre, and Nate Parde’s lighting and Janet Pitcher’s costumes complement Fanning’s distinctive sets.

If you can get past the creaky gender politics of “Goodbye, Old Girl” and the like, “Yankees” might win you over with its strong turns by David Kirk Grant as the exasperated manager Van Buren, Jon Sangster as the hapless player Rocky, and Sapper as the persistent (and consistently funny) Gloria, among others.

And while the staging has a few minor hang-ups — at one point a scoreboard reads 12-11 while someone is saying the tally is actually 4-3 — the show’s sheer ebullience is hard to beat.

This “Damn Yankees” clearly takes a cue from the Senators on turning humble material into a winner.

‘Damn Yankees’

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays. Through June 18.

Where: San Diego Musical Theatre at the Spreckels Theatre, 121 Broadway, downtown.

Tickets: $22-$72 (discounts available)

Phone: (858) 560-5740


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