Review: Musical Theatre West Hits Another Grand Slam with Fun-Filled DAMN YANKEES

Long Beach's MTW stages an entertaining, high-energy revival that mixes old-school charm with new-school sass.

By: Oct. 21, 2022
Review: Musical Theatre West Hits Another Grand Slam with Fun-Filled DAMN YANKEES
Lesli Margherita and James Olivas. Photo ©Caught In The Moment

When it comes to classic stage musicals that are almost always guaranteed smile-inducing crowd-pleasers no matter where you see it---whether as a big budget Broadway revival or in a local high school auditorium---right up there is the 1955 Broadway home run DAMN YANKEES, the reliably peppy Tony Award-winning musical that cleverly combines show tunes and kick-lines with a Faust-ian tale revolving America's favorite pastime.

Featuring a memorable, now timeless score by the PAJAMA GAME team of Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, and a pleasingly charming (and sometimes surprisingly bawdy) book by George Abbott and Douglass Wallop (itself based on Wallop's own novel The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant), this cheeky sports-themed musical---which centers around a rabid baseball fan making a risky deal with the Devil himself to ensure his favorite team's victory---is such a buoyant, high-energy theater experience by design and temperament that it usually coaxes assured high-energy acting, singing, and dancing from its assembled ensemble.

So it's not a big surprise, then, that the latest local production of the show currently being presented by Musical Theatre West in Long Beach, CA is no exception to this expectation.

A truly fun-filled, ecstatically-performed iteration that is enjoyable from beginning to end, MTW's Broadway-caliber production---now on stage at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center through October 30, 2022---is a definite must-see for both fans and newbies of the classic musical.

There's plenty to love about this impressive new production.

Under the highly-caffeinated direction of Cynthia Ferrer (a veteran stage actor herself), MTW's engagingly-paced DAMN YANKEES never lets up being entertaining, providing the audience a steady bounty of humorous exchanges and scenes, genuinely tender moments, and lots of thrilling, athletically-wowing musical numbers dynamically choreographed by Alexis Carra Girbés (paying significant nods to the work of the original production's genius choreographer Bob Fosse).

Review: Musical Theatre West Hits Another Grand Slam with Fun-Filled DAMN YANKEES
Jeff Skowron and Norman Large. Photo ©Caught In The Moment

Hearing Adler and Ross' classic score performed live by a full orchestra (a rarity on Broadway these days) is also such a luxe treat here, with musical director Matthew Smedal making sure that the audience gets to revisit and revel in the score's restored splendor (which explains, of course, why patrons were happily humming tunes from the show during intermission and after the final bows).

Visually, the production offers top-notch theatrical accoutrements that include sets designed and reconfigured by Kevin Clowes, vibrant period costumes designed by Amy Setterlund, and brilliant lighting designed by Paul Black. I especially liked seeing the clever idea that the route to and from "hell" is simply a smoky, flame-lined staircase leading down to the dark blackness of the Carpenter Center's orchestra pit.

And, perhaps, best of all, this all-around exceptional production also boasts a lively and wonderfully engaging ensemble cast that moves and sounds as if not only have they been performing these roles forever, but also that they're having a great time with the material.

That palpable sense of fun and cheekiness is bursting out of every corner of this production.

That awesomeness, of course, starts from the top, highlighted by the spectacular leads among its winning company: the reliably awesome, local stage favorite Jeff Skowron who plays the devil-ish Mr. Applegate with an amusingly petulant and dastardly demeanor; oh-so-swoon-worthy triple-threat James Olivas who plays affable rookie overnight superstar Joe Hardy, blessed with matinee good looks paired with a buttery voice; and, finally, the ultra fabulous, Ovation Award-winning Lesli Margherita is here as well, making a bawdy, triumphant return to the MTW stage from Broadway to slip into the role of Lola, the diva-licious seductress aiming to distract Joe with her amusingly sexy, manipulative ways. With her every appearance, especially with the role's signature "Whatever Lola Wants," it's hard to look away---because she truly made the role her own.

The three of them in particular make this production worth seeing, though there are, naturally, other standouts amongst the company.

Review: Musical Theatre West Hits Another Grand Slam with Fun-Filled DAMN YANKEES
The cast of MTW's DAMN YANKEES. Photo ©Caught In The Moment

The very talented Aurelia Michael-Holmgren---one of the show's many triple-threats---arrives on the scene as Gloria Thorpe, a shrewd, spirited journalist armed with an inquisitive nature that immediately suspects something odd with the sudden meteoric rise of rookie Joe Hardy. Her dizzying dance number "Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, MO" with the super-amped baseball team---led by scene-stealers Daniel John O'Connor (Rocky), Julian Xavier (Vernon), and Josh Alvarez (Smokey)---totally slaps.

I especially appreciated veteran actor Norman Large's work here as Washington Senators super-fan Joe Boyd---the guy who makes a deal with the devil to see his fave team's victory and ends up magically transforming into the team's spry young ball player Joe Hardy. Teri Bibb is also terrific as Joe's oft-ignored but still beloved wife Meg Boyd, who patiently dotes on her distracted-by-baseball hubby.

One particular number I truly loved was the beautifully-staged fantasy trio between Bibb's Meg, Large's OG Joe, and Olivas' young Joe on "Near To You." That song never really affected me quite as much in previous productions, so it becomes much more of a lovely, new hidden gem to rediscover with how much it resonates here.

But, honestly, this show---and, by extension, this new production---is a hidden gem altogether. The show can't help it... as old-fashioned and traditional-leaning as it may seem, DAMN YANKEES is a funny, predictably heartwarming musical that somehow interweaves a bit of modern cheeky naughtiness in its DNA to balance the sweetness.

Review: Musical Theatre West Hits Another Grand Slam with Fun-Filled DAMN YANKEES
Norman Large, Teri Bibb, and James Olivas.
Photo ©Caught In The Moment

So when we hear the otherwise corny ditty "(You've Gotta Have) Heart," they probably really mean it---both sincerely and with their tongue pressed firmly against their cheek. All in all, this one's a home run for MTW... and this is coming from a person with no affection reserved for sports whatsoever.

Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ.

Photos © Caught In The Moment Photography/Musical Theatre West.

Performances of Musical Theatre West's production of DAMN YANKEES continue through Sunday, October 30, 2022. The Carpenter Performing Arts Center is located at 6200 E. Atherton Street in Long Beach, CA. For tickets or for more information, please call 562-856-1999 x4 or visit online at Click Here.



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