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Review - Damn Yankees & East 14th

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Perched above the stage in their private bleacher section, just beyond an outfield fence graffitied with the musical's title, conductor Rob Berman and his 25 piece Encores! Summer Stars orchestra might be mistaken for the conservatory cousins of Brooklyn's legendary Dodger Sym-Phony. But instead of serenading umpires from the Ebbet's Field grandstands with double forte arrangements of "Three Blind Mice," the musicians of director John Rando's cracker-jack production of Damn Yankees - a 1955 musical that opened in the early weeks of the baseball season that saw Brooklyn beat the Yankees for the borough's only World Series championship - treats 21st Century audiences to that thrilling sound of a Broadway Golden Age orchestra. The detailed movements and textures contained within Don Walker's orchestrations, whether giving comic accents to the pepper-upper "Heart," setting a satirical mood for the pseudo-vamp "Whatever Lola Wants" or lifting a slow ballad like "A Man Doesn't Know" with phrases that search the mind of the singing character, help bring majestic touches of artistry to this rousing vaudeville disguised as a book musical.

While Damn Yankees might not be considered a classic when plopped in the same league as My Fair Lady and Show Boat, when you consider the entries that are lovingly and unashamedly Musical Comedy, this one's a champ. Douglass Wallop teamed up with George Abbott, the director/bookwriter who was a major force in changing the comedic aspects of musical comedy from popular performers doing their familiar routines into something more character and plot driven, to remove the darker aspects of his novel, The Year The Yankees Lost The Pennant, and turn it into wholesome, safely-sexy fun that championed healthy obsessions like sports fanaticism and marital fidelity. Co-composer/lyricists Richard Adler and Jerry Ross (who tragically died at the age of 29 during the show's run) supplied a score full of lively, theatrically charged toe-tappers with smart, humorous words less than a year after the premiere of their sophomore effort smash, The Pajama Game.

Baseball goes Faustian in this tale of a frustrated middle-aged fan of the sad sack Washington Senators (Back in the days when the old joke described Washington as," First in war, first in peace and last in the American League.") who sells his soul to the devil to become the young power-hitting shortstop who leads his team in a quest to beat New York for the league championship and a chance to play in the World Series. But when the young phenom starts missing the middle-aged wife he left behind, ol' Lucifer, here known as Mr. Applegate, employs the dazzling temptress Lola as a distraction.

But the plot takes many unexpected detours (Why are the ballplayers dancing a hoedown? Where did that mambo number come from?) for the sake of sheer entertainment and much of the success of Damn Yankees greatly depends on how well the company can go out there and just put on a show. If the two billed-above-the-title stars of this production weren't consistently up to that task at the performance I attended, various factors, such as the short rehearsal and preview periods before the critics arrive, should be considered and I wouldn't be surprised if they've greatly improved by the time these words are being read.

The talented Jane Krakowski gives an admirable effort as Lola but she doesn't seem to have been given a chance to make the role completely her own. First appearing in a white dress and wig reminiscent of Marilyn Monroe in her Seven Year Itch days, she sings her first number, the snazzily syncopated "A Little Brains, A Little Talent," in a wispy voice that undercuts the funny lyric's impact; even striking a couple of iconic MM poses in the process. While the production's use of Bob Fosse's original Broadway choreography (reproduced by Mary Macleod) is a sensational choice, both historically and artistically, the campy vampiness of, "Whatever Lola Wants," is not a good fit for her when required to copy every legendary move that he created for his new-found muse, Gwen Verdon. Though Krakowski and her song and dance partner John Selya do score solidly in the eccentric mambo, "Who's Got The Pain?," it's not until she leads a chorus of beatniks in the hep-cat dance break of "Two Lost Souls" that the actress seems to really let loose and take the stage.

Making his New York stage debut as the cloven-hoofed demon, Sean Hayes is at his best when using a fine verbal dexterity to twist humor out of some the most innocent-seeming lines. But at other times his performance is just too small, especially at the built-in encore of his solo, "Those Were The Good Old Days," where his timid-sounding singing and tiny gestures betray the showmanship needed when a star is alone on stage doing a vaudevillian turn in front of a shimmering curtain. But then, the first half of the song, a Liberace-style bit arranged to take advantage of his training as a concert pianist, is quite boffo.

Cheyenne Jackson, the leading man who's quickly becoming famous for not being as well known as he should be, plays the budding superstar Joe with a warm modesty and graceful stride reminiscent of Joe DiMaggio, giving the Lola as Marilyn idea an interesting edge. His two ballads are done with rich-voiced sincerity, giving his smooth baritone a slight period lilt reminiscent of the mainstream pop stars that dominated 50's music until Bill Haley came around. His scenes with Randy Graff, as the wife his older self left behind, are beautifully heart-tugging, with Jackson subtly showing Joe's growing yearning for them to be together again and Graff communicating a confused sense of romance she's feeling for this mysterious young man. Their unusual relationship is nicely set up by P.J. Benjamin, who plays the pre-transformation Joe as a nice guy trying to share his passion for baseball with the woman he loves, despite her disinterest.

As the sharp-tongued sports reporter, Megan Lawrence thickens up her wonderfully colorful speaking voice until sounds like something akin to a duck gargling (and I mean that in the most complimentary way), giving extra zing to her zingers. Michael Mulheren sings with gusto as the Senators' crusty manager while Jimmy Ray Bennett, Robert Creighton and Jimmy Smagula make for a trio of loveable lug ballplayers. MacLeod deserves extra praise for giving the male ensemble members the right amount of athleticism over artistry to make them really look lIke Ballplayers dancing. The highbrow/lowbrow contrast between Veanne Cox and Kathy Fitzgerald as a pair of baseball-crazed ladies nails every laugh that's written and a few that aren't.

While Encores! productions are generally on a low design budget, John Lee Beatty's cut-out sets, William Ivey Long's costumes and Peter Kaczorowski's lights combine for a light pastel fantasy vision of 1950's Americana.

Just like last year's Summer Stars production of Gypsy was a solid starting point for what became a far better realized Broadway revival, this Damn Yankees could use some adjustments before it can be considered an all-star, but as she stands it's still a big W in the Encores! win column.

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I'm not going to write all that much about Don Reed's East 14th: True Tales of a Reluctant Player. It's not fun giving a negative review to a self-directed one-person autobiographical solo piece where the artist is presumably sharing very personal parts of his life in a manner that, if not exactly entertaining or particularly interesting, at least lacks incompetence.

"My Two Dads" takes on a new meaning as Reed describes his 1970's Oakland childhood split between 7am routes knocking on doors with his Jehovah's Witness step-father and mingling with the denizens of "Ho Row" with his pimp biological daddy. Yes, he comes of age, and in the process plays a variety of broad, underwritten stereotypes meant to represent those who helped him get there.

Let's just say I wasn't taken in by the story, I wasn't amused by the humor and I wasn't impressed by the acting.

"They say it takes a village to raise a child, but sometimes it takes a ghetto to raise a man," Reed remarks in what I suppose is meant to be a poignant moment. Let me add, it usually takes a playwright and a director to make theatre.


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