Damn Yankees

Adler and Ross’ Damn Yankees, which ran over 1,000 performances and won seven Tony Awards during its original Broadway success of nearly six decades ago, was brought out of the local bull-pen last night by Opera Theater of Pittsburgh. It had been there since CLO produced the show last in 1976. The popular musical threw quite a curve ball at the audience, for in his version, director Scott Wise has the male roles acted and sung by female members of the company, and vice versa.

“In a twist on the great American baseball musical,” says Wise, “the women of the company are ‘playing’ the men, the men are ‘playing’ the women, and the Washington Senators are playing those ‘Damn Yankees’ in a race for the pennant. Joe wants the Senators to win, Meg wants Joe back, Applegate wants Joe’s soul, Gloria wants a scoop, and ‘Whatever Lola Wants, Lola Gets’ as the Senators remind us that all you really need is ‘Heart.’”

It can be said at once that the comedy element quite naturally overwhelms the musical in this unusual spin, but there was some fine singing done last night, some not so fine, an uproarious moment or two, a whole lot’a Lola goin’ on, and great energy and enthusiasm on the part of the young performers.

Michaella Calzaretta makes her debut as a conductor with this production, and faced keeping a wind ensemble, with piano and percussion, in time and tune – no small task – and the instrumentalists provided a somewhat “oomp-pa-pa” sounding accompaniment to the musical numbers that took a little getting used to before it became appropriate and in keeping with the theme of the show. The minimalistic scenic design of Christine Lee Won is staged “three-quarter/thrust” in the Beaux Arts Ballroom of the Twentieth Century Club, a sensible arrangement, as trying to fit the action – and there’s a lot of it – onto a stage would have definitely cramped the production’s style.

Despite the gender bending of this staging, Damn Yankees is by no means a “drag show.” The costume designs are as minimalistic as the staging, and rather unisex. Females playing male reporters in the locker room slipped on fedoras; men who had clutch purses tucked under an arm, or wore a sensible headscarf while sweeping the carpet, played the few female roles. However, Patrick Shelton (pictured below), as Lola, could hardly keep from standing out. A tall man of substantial build, he vamped and camped, and embellished his rendering of “Whatever Lola Wants” with amusing body language. He seemed to keep himself somewhat in check, so as not to “overdo” the thing, but he might be encouraged to let loose and play the role to the hilt, as he was an audience favorite.

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Rachel Eve Holmes, as the rejuvenated “Shoeless Joe” Hardy, and Benjamin Robinson, as the hapless – but not hopeless – Meg Boyd (both pictured below), were other standouts in the rather large crowd. Ms. Holmes demonstrated last summer in The Fantasticks that she is a gifted actress and singer, and last night gave new proof of her abundant talent. Mr. Robinson, despite that fact that he looked like he stepped out of a Monty Python skit, admirably resisted acting as if he had, sang well, and played the role of the temporarily forsaken baseball widow quite well indeed.

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Julia Fox (pictured below), as the Mephistophelian Mr. Applegate, proved almost as soon as she stepped onto the scene that she was going to be one of the dominating personages of the evening. But she quite unexpectedly “blew the lid off the joint,” as the saying goes, when, after one of her numbers, Michaella Calzaretta stepped out of her place as conductor and into the action, calling for an encore. Ms. Fox obliged, of course, and interpolated into her encore a sizeable piece of the “Queen of the Night” aria from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte with dazzling effect. It was a peculiar bit of action, but clicked with the audience just the same.

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So many of the cast members played multiple roles that it was difficult sometimes to keep score (all puns, by the way, are intended), but the large and variously talented ensemble included Desiree Soteres as Joe Boyd (before he made a pact with the devilish Applegate and became “Shoeless Joe”), the very amusing pairing of Joshua Smith andGabriel DiGennaro as “Sister” and Doris; Teresa Procter as Henry, Samantha Kronenfeld as Sohovik, Valerie Hosler as the “moiderously” funny Smokey, Katie Manukyan as the “scoop” seeking Gloria Thorpe; Emily Jensen as Linville, Elana Bell as Lowe, Sabina Balsamo as Mickey, Ann Louise Glasser as Bouley, Emily Baker as Vernon, Kelley Kimball as Van Buren, Jennifer Wilson as Rocky, and Maureen Smith as Welch.

Just like you’ve gotta have “Heart,” you’ve gotta see this take on Damn Yankees to fully appreciate and believe it.

The show was repeated at today’s matinee, but additional performances will be given on Thursday, July 16, and Friday, July 17, at 7:30 p.m., and at the 2:00 p.m. Saturday matinees of July 25 and August 1. Visit http://otsummerfest.org/  for ticket information, production details, cast information and much more.

Special thanks to the Opera Theater of Pittsburgh for two complimentary press tickets.

The production team for “Damn Yankees”

Conductor, Michaella Calzaretta; Director, Scott Wise; Arrangement, Joseph Kern; Scenic Designer, Christine Lee Won; Costume Designer, Alexandra Kasckow; Lighting Designer, Madeleine Steineck; Hair and Makeup Designer, Karen J. Gilmer; Stage Manager, Dustin Cañez; Assistant Director & Sound Designer, Dawn Neely; Assistant Stage Managers, Alaina Bartkowiak and Kyle Birdsall.

Performance Date: Saturday, July 11, 2015