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THEATER : Covering All the Bases : Jack O'Brien, the energetic artistic director of San Diego's Old Globe Theatre, segues from his record-breaking 'King Lear' to a Broadway-bound revival of the 1955 musical 'Damn Yankees'

September 26, 1993|BARBARA ISENBERG | Barbara Isenberg is a Times staff writer

SAN DIEGO — Jack O'Brien was rehearsing Shakespeare's "The Winter's Tale" at the Old Globe Theatre here last year when managing director Thomas Hall interrupted with a question. Would O'Brien be interested in directing a major revival of "Damn Yankees" at the Old Globe?

"I just lit up and said, 'Absolutely, I'd love to,' " recalls O'Brien. "Then I went on with my rehearsal."

It was business as usual for the Old Globe's energetic artistic director. "Damn Yankees" opens at the Old Globe on Friday, starring Bebe Neuwirth, Victor Garber and Jere Shea. And it does so right after O'Brien concluded a triumphant production of "King Lear" starring Hal Holbrook.

O'Brien is, at 54, both busy and versatile. Here at home, he can pack the house for Shakespeare, Neil Simon and risky new plays. On Broadway, he received a 1976 Tony nomination for a revival of "Porgy and Bess," then another earlier this year for Richard Nelson's "Two Shakespearean Actors" at Lincoln Center.

"He's got good theater smarts," observes Bernard Gersten, Lincoln Center Theater's executive producer. "He's dramaturgically smart, he's actor-wise and he has a good feel for what plays."

Sometimes what plays best for O'Brien and the Old Globe is Shakespeare, helped along by a familiar name such as Campbell Scott in "Hamlet" or, more recently, Holbrook in "King Lear." Tickets often sell as if the Bard were Andrew Lloyd Webber: "King Lear" broke the Globe's box-office record for weekly sales--despite a playing time of more than three hours.

But what also plays well here, not to mention nearly everywhere else, are musicals, and O'Brien's production of "Yankees" is expected to open on Broadway next spring. With revivals like "Guys and Dolls," "She Loves Me" and "Carousel" either on Broadway or en route, O'Brien is getting his shot at reviving a musical classic.

"When anybody does a musical, people say, 'Why don't you hire Tommy Tune, Jerry Zaks, Mike Ockrent or Michael Blakemore,' " says Mitchell Maxwell, lead producer on the Broadway production of "Damn Yankees." "The only difference between those four directors and Jack O'Brien in terms of talent, expertise, taste and style is that they have each had a big, big hit musical on Broadway.

"When I discussed who was the equivalent and equal in talent but didn't have the 'reputation,' who hadn't created the musical yet to make his mark, the most important people in our business said 'Jack O'Brien.' "

"Damn Yankees," based on Douglas Wallop's 1954 novel "The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant," ran more than two years on Broadway, toured the nation, played London and emerged on screen. The Tony-winning show, which weaves the fable of a baseball fan who sells his soul to the devil to help the Washington Senators trounce the Yankees, introduced such songs as "Whatever Lola Wants (Lola Gets)" and "(You've Got to Have) Heart."

"When I looked at the skeleton of 'Damn Yankees,' I saw an indestructible story, absolutely original characters, one of the freshest, sassiest American scores of the century, and some outmoded equipment," the director says. "I saw a piece of furniture that should be stripped, hardware that should be dunked and shined, and drawers that should be oiled."

Legendary showman George Abbott, "Yankees' " 106-year-old co-author and original director, apparently agreed with him, and the two have met several times. As he puts it, Mr. Abbott--which is how O'Brien always refers to him--"knows what I know: If you've got a better idea than I do, I'll use it. And that has made all the difference."

The show is still set in 1955, but O'Brien has rethought characters and relationships as well as staging. A revised orchestration accommodates some new choreography and a smaller orchestra (which will be augmented on Broadway). The book has been edited to minimize scenes that essentially hid scenery changes.

"There is no question in my mind that a certain amount of modernizing is a good idea," says director Harold Prince, who produced the show in 1955 and has informally followed the revisions. "Theater design has changed enormously since 1955, and you want to take advantage of progress."

Not that O'Brien knew going in that change would work. "I'll tell you the truth," O'Brien confides. "I never thought I'd get this far. It has been my experience, through 'Porgy and Bess' and 'Kiss Me Kate' (which he adapted for the Old Globe in 1984) that people are intimidated by change. When push comes to shove, they want it done exactly the way it was."

O'Brien, however, prefers "a reverent backward glance." Otherwise, he says, "you can't make a commitment to the material. You see it as something in a museum, and it doesn't seem to touch you. My job is to surprise you into realizing, as I try to do with Shakespeare, that people have never changed."

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