Theatre Review: Otterbein’s Damn Yankees Bursting With Joy
Damn Yankees, the perennial Springtime crowd pleaser musical since 1955, with a score by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross and book by George Abbott and Douglass Wallop, opened Thursday at Otterbein in a sparkling production directed by Mark Mineart.
Damn Yankees might be best remembered these days for the earliest glimpses of Bob Fosse’s reinvention of stage choreography and the dancing in this production is exquisite. Stella Hiatt Kane’s choreography has a thorough understanding of Fosse’s language but wisely uses it sparingly such as in the dazzling going-to-Hell-together duet between Lola and Joe, “Two Lost Souls.” She and director Mineart understand the amount of earthy, flesh-and-blood sensuality this show needs to keep itself from being too cutesy and clean.
This show doesn’t work without a duo of Applegate and Lola who are charming enough to make us think, “Yeah, I’d sign that away,” and diabolical and steel-willed to sell that they’d kill or maim without much of a second thought. Otterbein’s production excels at that. Kane’s Lola is a revelation, a torrent of calculated sex appeal and a jaw-dropping gift for physical comedy. She rips into the one song from the play that’s turned into a Standard “Whatever Lola Wants” with both hands, radar-gun eyes and a smile like a razor. Labrecque’s tightly-wound when-he-stops-smiling-there’s-a-problem Applegate is riveting whenever he’s on the stage. The mundane world foil/nemesis, Isom’s Thorpe, lights up the stage on her feature “Shoeless Joe From Hannibal, MO,” and winsomely puts across her character as a righteous puncturer of toxic illusions.
Gittins and Robertson do a stunning job of making Old and Young Joe feel like the same person with similar inflections and body language (they’re scheduled to swap roles during the run) and radiating a genuine goodness. Robertson comes most alive as a supple duet partner with Kane on “Two Lost Souls” and Prenevost on the luminous “Near to You.” Prenevost’s Meg doesn’t have as much to do, but she’s delightful, particularly with her very funny foils Leah Windall and Noël Isaacson. The assortment of ball players is uniformly strong, with Cameron Chang and Aaron Quick as standouts.
The material is pretty dated, and no production can escape that. Wisely, Mineart and Kane lean into this as a period piece, and the exaggerated retro sets by Rob Johnson and costumes by Rebecca White do a great job selling the ’50s-as-they-never-quite-were. They, this cast and Lori Kay Harvey’s musical direction, keep the energy level and fun high and when the material creaks they make that into a wink it’d be hard not to be charmed by.
Damn Yankees has a split personality, part comic romp and part sentimental sermonizing.
It's the free-wheeling frolic that dominates Otterbein University's lively production of the musical, serving its message while saving its energy for big production numbers and naughty songs.
The rickety plot follows middle-aged Washington Senators superfan Joe Boyd (Colin Robertson) as he makes a deal with the devil (Jack Labrecque) that transforms him into a young hitter (Matt Gittins) who makes the team a force to be reckoned with against the rival Yankees. (These were the characters played by the two actors on Thursday's opening night; they alternate roles throughout the show's run.)
Joe's patient wife (Lottie Mae Prenevost) carries on after his mysterious disappearance, while Joe, occasionally expressing his ambivalence in song, gets wrapped up in further shenanigans created by the devil – disguising himself as Joe's agent Mr. Applegate – and his cohort, the seductive Lola (Caroline Kane).
Gittins' Joe has a boyish appeal and Prenevost is sweet as possibly the world's most understanding wife. Labrecque nicely handles the sardonic soft-shoe number Those Were the Good Old Days.
Kane gets the show's most unforgettable number, the irresistible Whatever Lola Wants, and she playfully makes the most of it, refreshingly combining the sultry and the delightfully silly, with Gittins ably playing the part of the young man barely able to resist her many invitations.
This is a musical where plot plays second or third fiddle to song and dance, the sexier and more raucous ones soar under the direction of Mark Mineart, musical director Lori Kay Harvey, and choreographer Stella Hiatt Kane. Numbers like the rambunctious tribute to the difficulties of resisting "booze and broads" The Game and the gymnastically soaring Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, MO, led by spunky reporter Gloria (Abigail Isom), demonstrate the depth of the Otterbein ensemble in music and dance.
This may not be a musical that rewards much deep thought, but it's got enough Heart to wow any audience.
Alternating roles helps Otterbein actors fully embrace Damn Yankees roles
A man plays ball with Satan — and risks striking out for eternity — in Damn Yankees, an Otterbein University production that will open March 30th.
Otterbein's music and theater and dance departments will present the Broadway musical comedy about a middle-aged baseball fan who dreams of becoming a young athlete — one good enough to help the sad-sack Washington Senators finally win the American League pennant over the New York Yankees.
"It's a cautionary fable about integrity, ambition and learning to value what you already have," director Mark Mineart said.
Mineart added a twist to Otterbein's revival with interchangeable lead actors. During one show, for example, Colin Robertson will portray Joe Boyd, the aging fan, and Matt Gittins will play the young Joe Hardy whom Boyd becomes after his devil's bargain. At the next show, the actors will swap roles.
"One of the coolest things about this process is the partnership, that we get to create these roles together," said Gittins, a 19-year-old sophomore.
"We both have things we bring to the role," said Robertson, an 18-year-old freshman.
Watching each other in rehearsals, they agreed, has been instructive.
"It's been really nice to see the maturity (Matt) brings to both characters," Robertson said.
Gittins has learned from watching the "more nimble" Robertson.
"I'm learning things from Colin all the time — different choices he makes, the warmness he brings to the character," Gittins said.
Mineart got the double-casting idea after seeing Phillip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly co-starring and alternating lead roles in the 2000 Broadway production of Sam Shepard's True West.
"This allows each actor to take on and experience the entire arc of the character and his journey," Mineart said.
"Colin and Matt are mining the gold in the roles and talking to each other about what the role is about. ... What we're finding in rehearsal is two very different but equally engaging versions of both old Joe Boyd and young Joe Hardy. "
While Robertson has played double roles before, he's never faced the challenge of playing the same character in two bodies.
"The two Joes are the same person, but they're in very different circumstances with very different ways of going about things," he said. "Old Joe is going through his midlife crisis ... with a sense of defeat and resignation. Young Joe embodies this Captain America idea of who we all can be."
Gittins' challenge, meanwhile, is in tackling his first major role.
"I thought it was a fun show with a cool message," he said. "But through rehearsals, I've realized how much meat is there, how much these characters are going through and the costs of their decisions."
Caroline Kane, a junior, plays Lola, the sexy emissary of devilish Mr. Applegate (Jack Labrecque).
"Lola is a very complicated woman," said Kane, 21. "She was the ugliest woman in Providence, Rhode Island, when Mr. Applegate extends to her the idea of becoming the most beautiful woman in the world and a seductress."
Yet Lola, like Joe, learns from experience.
"(Joe's response) changes her," Kane said. "She discovers what's important in life: finding heart, finding love and being a good person."
Richard Adler and Jerry Ross wrote the score for the 1956 Tony winner — including the songs "Heart," "Whatever Lola Wants," "Near to You" and "Two Lost Souls."
"Having heart is the core of the play," Mineart said. "We have to keep our empathy and our hope, and give ourselves to something larger. ... It's about being part of a team."