There are no three words more calculated to make a critic’s heart sink than Amateur Operatic Society. So I approached Imperial Productions' staging of ‘Damn Yankees’ with a certain amount of trepidation. I need not have worried - much. Richard Adler and Jerry Ross’s gentle satire on America’s national game comes up fresh as paint in this 1955 musical twist on the Faust legend. You don’t even need to know or care about baseball, and as someone who rarely progresses further than Scrabble, I am profoundly grateful. The plot is simple: the devil, in the shape of Mr Applegate (Paul Tate), offers to make baseball fan Joe (Liam Christopher-Lloyd) the greatest player of all time, and incidentally allow the Washington Senators to snatch the pennant - whatever that is - from the New York Yankees (whose real-life domination of the game in the 1950s was a national joke).
Richard Adler and Jerry Ross’s gentle satire on America’s national game comes up fresh as paint in this 1955 musical twist on the Faust legend.
To achieve this he’ll have to give up his wife and home, and hand over his soul on 24th September. To prevent him back-sliding Applegate brings on his demon soubrette, Lola, who has two of the best numbers in the show, ‘A Little Brains, A Little Talent’ and ‘Whatever Lola Wants’. Originally written for Gwen Verdon, the part also once had a lot of very nifty dancing; this has been rather muted since dance is not Charlotte Donald’s strongest point. Will Joe sell out for fame and fortune, or will he return to wife, hearth and home? Well, what do you think? Clue: This is the 1950s. Another clue: ‘There’s something more to life than being a hero.’
Adler and Ross were discovered and promoted by that peerless Broadway craftsman Frank Loesser, whose ‘Guys and Dolls’ just precedes their work. They share his skill with the slightly off-centre, his gift for the absurd, but above all his warmth. Their musical characterisations are extremely engaging, their lyrics a model of clarity. The baseball widow of her husband: “When I’m alone with him, I’m alone”; the team, optimistically: “We’ve got to get better cos' we can’t get worse”. The one song from the show which spread all over the 50s like measles was ‘You’ve Got To Have Heart’, but the general level of tunefulness is very high. Adler and Ross, unusually for musical partnerships, each seem to have worked equally on music and lyrics. They chalked up two phenomenal hits in quick succession, ‘Pyjama Game’ and ‘Damn Yankees’, but then Jerry Ross died of a lung infection before he was thirty, and Richard Adler fell virtually silent for the next 50+ years. So much promise cut short.
The production on an open apron stage is simple, but manages to be more than the sum of its parts through its ebullience and energy. It would be easy to pick holes in individual performances. Christopher-Lloyd’s Joe looks clean-cut and all-American enough, but doesn’t distinguish too well between slobbish fan and lithe sports hero. The voice strains a bit in the upper register too. Donald’s Lola is altogether too shrill and shrewish to be credible as a vamp, while Paul Tate’s Applegate seems underpowered and hesitant; his ‘Those Were the Good Old Days’, which is meant to be a showstopper, wouldn’t have stopped a milk float. Of the principals, only Jenny Delisle as the wife, Meg, fully engages us, being very simple, direct and charming.
Despite this, the evening lifts in the ensemble numbers which are full-throated and enthusiastic. The engaging lunks in the baseball team are only sketched in the script, but fully characterised on stage. Best of them is Adam Samuel-Bal as Sohovick, an excellently focused dancer with elegant clean lines, who seizes his choreographic moment and his laughs when they come. Elsewhere Becky East’s choreography reads less like dance than movement for people who aren’t real dancers, but none the worse for that, because it keeps the energy levels high. Of the girls, Vicky Mason and Amber-Rose Summers score highly as a comic duo of 1950s frights in glasses.
What with the Union Theatre, Southwark Playhouse, the Latchmere, the Olde Rose and Crown in Walthamstow and Jermyn St and Charing Cross Theatres in the West End, London now has a slew of producing houses dedicated to new, interesting and classic-if-neglected musicals. Between them these venues have raised the bar considerably for music theatre. ‘Damn Yankees’ really can’t keep the same company, but it’s a serviceable version of a show that deserves to be seen.