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THEATER REVIEW : A Romp in the Ballpark : Hey, Lady ! The Nutty Professor as the Devil Brings New Life to Revival of 'Damn Yankees'

November 30, 1995|LAURIE WINER | TIMES THEATER CRITIC

The devil is a tummler. More on that in a moment.

Two years ago director Jack O'Brien reignited one of the most charming musicals of the 1950s and took his muscular production--every bit of it entertaining--from San Diego's Old Globe Theatre to Broadway. With book by George Abbott and Douglass Wallop (spruced up a bit by O'Brien), and music and lyrics by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, "Damn Yankees" is the Faustian tale of an aging baseball fan who temporarily sells his soul to become the star slugger for his beloved Washington Senators.

Along the way, someone got the inspired idea to cast Jerry Lewis as the devil, known here as Mr. Applegate, the part originated by Ray Walston in 1955 and reprised by the meticulous and suave Victor Garber in O'Brien's revival. Lewis made his Broadway debut when he replaced Garber this year. Always the trouper, Lewis has been touring the country in the show and can be seen this week at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium and next week at the Orange County Performing Arts Center.

Lewis begins with relative restraint, keeping his voice low, keeping his audience wondering whether a shrieking "Hey, lady !" is ever going to erupt. It does. By the end of this now three-hour show (Lewis adds about 15 minutes of shtick to it), it's clear that, yes, this is "Damn Yankees," but it will also stop periodically to become the Jerry Lewis Show, complete with new jokes and "breaking up" (when Lewis pauses to get a seemingly spontaneous laugh under control, a technique designed to make the audience feel it is witnessing something unscheduled and unique).

Lewis doles out the trademark and beloved signatures--the cross-eyed grin, the girlish scream--with a kind of restraint. He gives just enough to feed his fans and still keep the show on track. He allows himself an entire routine, in the second-act song "Those Were the Good Old Days," that could now be subtitled "Pure Jerry" or "French Heaven." It involves patter, a hat and a whole lot of canes. When the clowning ends and the music takes over, Lewis is surprisingly debonair. He moves skillfully with a hat and cane, showing that he is, in fact, the consummate showman, the show-biz survivor.

The rest of the show survives, too. From the brassy overture (the smart orchestrations are by Douglas Besterman) to set designer Douglas Schmidt's witty depiction of 1950s Populuxe-style suburbia, "Damn Yankees" is a warm and dizzyingly sweet musical, as good-natured and open-hearted as the endlessly reprised song "Heart." It even boasts one of those moments in which musical comedy transcends its need to entertain at all costs and touches on something profound and disturbing and full and beautiful.

This happens in Act 1, when the aging baseball fan Joe Boyd (the excellent Dennis Kelly) has just made his bargain with the Nutty Professor (sorry, I mean the devil). He goes upstairs to softly sing "Goodbye Old Girl," a devotional farewell to his sleeping wife, Meg (Susan Bigelow). Then, racing downstairs to his front door, he emerges as the strapping young Joe Hardy (David Elder), who finishes the song in a voice full of vigor and strength. It's a thrilling moment, offering the dream of shaking off age, of refinding your way to the most vital moment of your life, and it speaks of the poignancy of aging as well.

A second-act highlight, called "Near to You," finds Meg (a wonderfully sultry Bigelow) in bed, dreaming of both her lost husband and her attractive new young boarder, Joe Hardy. She tosses about while the men's faces appear to her in her fever dream. "Damn Yankees" believes firmly not only in marriage but in the value and sexuality of the mature woman. The devil's temptress Lola can hold no charm for Joe Hardy, who loves this faithful wife.

Choreographer Rob Marshall does some of his best work in "Damn Yankees," particularly in the delightful, athletic Keystone Cop number for the woefully unskilled Washington Senators, which finds them chasing balls, missing balls, being chased by balls and getting hit on the head with balls.

Valerie Wright is game as Applegate's sidekick Lola, a vamp for eternity, but she is a comedian impersonating a sexpot rather than an actual sexpot. As wise-cracking girl reporter Gloria Thorpe, Linda Gabler is so perky she prances when she walks; she strains a bit but she nails her big Act 1 dance number "Shoeless Joe From Hannibal, Mo." David Elder is appealing and boyish as young Joe Hardy but is a shade too bland.

In his bio in the program, Lewis provides essentially only two facts: He is thrilled to have made it to Broadway and he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. So, how often do you get to see a Nobel Peace Prize nominee screech "Hey, lady "? Here's your chance.

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