Damn Yankees continues at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre, London until 14 April.
As 1950s musical comedies go, Damn Yankees has struggled in the UK – its West End revival in 1997 closing after just a couple of months. Maybe that’s down to British audiences’ unfamiliarity with baseball, the sporting subject at the musical’s heart. If so, that would be a shame, as the Brockley Jack’s spirited production shows that it is not the nature of the sport – or even sport itself – which is the theme here, but that one’s desires for chances long gone can hide the virtues of the life we have.
A comedy with thematic echoes of Faust rather than a straightforward adaptation, the musical revolves around suburban husband Joe, who once harboured ambitions of becoming a professional baseball player, but is now a couch potato, shouting at the TV as his beloved team fails time and time again to defeat the New York Yankees. His wife Meg, along with other sports widows, opens the show with a lovely number about the six months out of every year in which they become sports widows – a familiar scene to anybody whose partner has a sporting obsession.
When Joe receives an offer from the Mephistophelean Mr Applegate (Paul Tate) to become the young pitch hitter he had always dreamed of being – and to help his beloved Washington Senators beat those Damn Yankees in the process – he sells his soul to the Devil. There are a few provisos and quid pro quos to go along with it, though, and when Applegate senses that he may lose out on Joe’s soul, he plots to throw the player’s redemption off course. If this all risks sounding a bit portentous, it’s enlivened by a book by George Abbott and Douglass Wallopp (based on a novel by Wallopp) that’s as funny as it is charming, and songs by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross that rival their other well-known hit, The Pajama Game.
A lively and spirited ensemble cast are clearly having great fun with the material. Of the minor players, Vicki Mason’s Doris and Adam Samuel Bal’s Sohovick stand out in the cast of eccentrics, and Rachel Lea Gray is sweetly unrelenting as the journalist who smells a rat in Joe’s new-found fame. If Liam Christopher-Lloyd’s Joe is a little too fresh-faced to be the past-it surbanite, in both that form and as the fresh-faced fantasy baseball player he is a winning partner for Jenny Delisle’s Meg, whose sadness and vulnerability provides a useful counterpoint to some of the broader comedy of the show.
But in this piece, it is not the Devil who gets the best tunes, but his subordinate, the sultry temptress Lola (Charlotte Donald), who does her best to get Joe to succumb to her charms while unwittingly falling for his. Her two Latin tempo numbers, ‘Whatever Lola Wants’ and ‘Who’s Got the Pain’ – the latter starting as a sultry mambo dust with Adam Samuel Bal before erupting into a raucous Act I closer with the entire cast – are the highlights of the show’s musical score and tick all the right boxes here.
If Damn Yankees doesn’t always get the attention of its contemporaries, this production does its level best to show what we have been missing. Touching on very modern day themes of celebrity obsession and scandal, it is nevertheless its period charm which helps this production knock it out of the park.
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