Damn Yankees at the Ordway

The Cast of Damn Yankees

The Cast of Damn Yankees. Photo by John Schaidler.

Truth be told, Damn Yankees (the Ordway, through June 28) is not a great show. It has its charms and a handful of memorable tunes, but its plot is, well, dumb. A reframing of Faust set in the world of 1950s baseball, Damn Yankees tells the story of Joe, a die-hard Washington Senators fan, who sells his soul to the devil in order to become a young, all-star player who can take his team to the World Series. Reduced down to just that exchange, the conceit might be believable, but the fact that Joe is a man who dearly loves his wife and must also give her up for the team makes the whole thing a little…ridiculous.

Throw in a seductive witch and a nosy journalist, and one has either a recipe for fantastic camp or a requirement for imaginative direction to inject nuance into a story that otherwise is lacking. Unfortunately, director James Rocco goes in neither of those directions and gives its audience a disappointingly tired, bland production.

Beginning with a colorless and lifeless production design that puts a band smack-dab in the middle of the stage, the show is hamstrung in its staging, and the use of amateurish backdrop projections and sparse set pieces does little to prevent the cavernous Ordway space from swallowing the production. Lighting design could have gone a long way to isolate moments, but it instead served as a constant reminder of empty space.

Of course, a theater of the Ordway’s stature and audience size attracts top talent, and this show is filled with strong vocals. Thay Floyd brings a magnetism to the lead character of Joe Hardy and sings beautifully, as does local dynamo Kersten Rodau, who belts “Shoeless Joe from Hannibal Mo” with authority and a wide grin. Others in the cast, such as Dieter Bierbrauer as Rocky and Lawrence Clayton as Joe Boyd, are also easy-to-listen-to, lending their impressive voices to a few toe-tapping numbers.

Particularly problematic characters are the villains. That’s not to say that Tari Kelly (who plays Lola) and Monte Wheeler (as Applegate) are poor performers (they aren’t), but instead that the direction was rote and by-the-numbers. While revisiting the film version of “Whatever Lola Wants,” the most famous of the musical’s songs, it was clear that the choreographer Sharon Halley had staged a nearly frame for frame copy of the movie scene. As pleasant as that may have been for those nostalgic for the film, the scene demands its temptress be tempting, so a mounting today should be smolderingly sexy or extraordinarily campy. Instead, this production juxtaposes awkward camp with saccharinity, rendering it nonsensical.

Ultimately, this is a middling production that coasts largely on the strengths of the performers. It is disheartening to see these talents constrained by generic direction. That being said, the performance we attended received a near-instant standing ovation, so in terms of business, the Ordway may have made the right call in playing this one safe. For us, however, it’s a ho-hum lazy fly ball rather than a home run.

David and Chelsea also review movies on their site Movie Matrimony.

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