Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - August 2, 2013

Anything for the pennant

Businessman sells his soul for baseball glory in Foothill's entertaining 'Damn Yankees'

by Karla Kane

Ever wonder, during the San Francisco Giants' improbably triumphant end to their 2012 season, if there was a supernatural element at play? You might, after viewing "Damn Yankees," Foothill Music Theatre's current production.

In this now-classic show (first presented on Broadway in the 1950s), the basic plot of Faustian legend is given an all-American twist when a baseball fanatic sells his soul to become the world's best ball player and help his beloved but hapless Washington Senators win the pennant.

"Old" Joe Boyd (Matt Tipton) has a comfortable home and a loving wife, Meg (Mary Melnick). However, he still hasn't gotten over the baseball dreams of his youth and is beyond frustrated by his favorite team's dismal place in the standings. When slick Satan shows up (under the name "Applegate") to offer Joe the chance of a lifetime, he's hesitant. Being a shrewd businessman, he agrees to give Applegate (Jeff Clarke) his soul in exchange for baseball glory but only with an escape clause: He has until the final game of the season to change his mind. Applegate inexplicably agrees and within moments old Joe is transformed into strapping young Joe Hardy (Daniel Mitchell), full of physical strength and a stronger singing voice.

Applegate quickly gets Joe signed with the Senators, who, as led by their kindly manager Benny Van Buren (Richard Lewis), try to make up in heart what they lack in wins. With Joe on the team, the players and their fans dream of finally defeating their toughest rival, the titular "damn" Yankees.

As in many tales of devilish dealings, though, it's not all peanuts and Cracker Jacks. Nosy reporter Gloria Thorpe (Caitlin Lawrence-Papp) suspects that Joe may be hiding a secret, while Joe finds himself torn between his love of the game and his desire to return to his life with loyal Meg. Applegate, sensing Joe's commitment to the deal wavering, sends in his closer, the sultry minion Lola (Jen Wheatonfox). But it seems the battle between Joe and his demons will continue right through the end of the pennant race.

The "deal with the devil" storyline is always a compelling one, no matter how many times it's seen, and "Damn Yankees" is no exception, with a zippy script by George Abbott and Douglass Wallop. The plot left me with a few questions, especially in regard to the extent or lack thereof of Applegate's powers, but it doesn't really matter.

There are a few famous tunes in the soundtrack, by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross (most notably "Whatever Lola Wants"), but for the most part the music is pleasant but unremarkable. In terms of performance quality, ideal leading man Mitchell and his love interests Wheatonfox and Melnick proved the most adept singers while Clarke, who has the most fun role as the devil bemoaning his waning influence in the world, sometimes strikes out vocally. Charming Holly Smolik and Dana Johnson scored big laughs as dizzy groupies Doris and Sister Miller, while the team of eager young ballplayers gained the biggest cheers at curtain call.

The show's original choreography was by dance innovator Bob Fosse, and he's a hard act to follow. The dancers give the Fosse style their best but don't always pull it off. On the other hand, it's a clever feat to be able to convey the action of a baseball game without having to show any of it, just well-played reactions.

I really appreciated the full sound of the orchestra, led by Catherine Snider. It's a delight to hear the interplay among strings, woodwinds, percussion and brass rather than just a cheesy keyboard. Also delightful are the retro costumes by Janis Bergmann and sets by Margaret Toomey.

On the whole, Foothill's "Damn Yankees" is, if not a grand slam, a very enjoyable show and a winning choice for a summer production. Plus, now when I watch a Giants game it'll be difficult for me not to imagine Bruce Bochy leading the boys in a locker-room rendition of "Heart."

What: "Damn Yankees," presented by Foothill Music Theatre

Where: Smithwick Theatre, Foothill College, 12345 El Monte Road, Los Altos Hills

When: Through Aug. 18, with shows Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m.

Cost: Tickets are $12-$28.

Info: Go to foothillmusicals.com or call 650-949-7360.

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