Chicago Theatre Review
A Devil of a Production
Damn Yankees – Light Opera Works
Light Opera Works is known for presenting classic operettas and musicals in their original form, usually without script edits or musical cuts. Broadway’s Golden Age (1940-1960’s) produced shows when an evening in the theatre promised several hours of entertainment. With lengthy libretti and lush scores filled with songs long on verses and filled with built-in encores, an audience got its money’s worth of entertainment. Audiences attending a LOW production can be confident of three things before they arrive: the production will be presented exactly like the Broadway original, the highlight of the evening will be Roger L. Bingaman’s full, rich orchestral accompaniment and a very long evening usually lies ahead. In these points the current production doesn’t fall short.
But there are some disappointments to be found in this presentation. There’s no denying that the script is long by today’s standards and, although it’s a period piece, some of the material is just plain old-fashioned. A brisk update and some judicious trimming would make this show more appealing for contemporary audiences. The songs often go on forever, the dance breaks run a little too long and the encores are simply unnecessary. That said, this talented cast sings Richard Adler and Jerry Ross’ score with pizzazz, power and perfect enunciation. George Abbott and Douglass Wallop’s script, based upon Wallop’s 1954 novel, The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant, captures a world closer to “Ozzie and Harriet” than “Modern Family.”
However, the biggest difficulty comes in Rudy Hogenmiller’s over-the-top caricature of Mr. Applegate. The very likable, talented Light Opera Works’ artistic director recently returned to the stage following too long an absence, playing the Emcee in this company’s stylish production of “Cabaret.” His performance in that role was precise, controlled and always exciting. However, as the comically demonic Applegate, an evil wheeler-dealer who’s spent centuries tricking unsuspecting good guys into selling their souls, Hogenmiller disappoints. The question is whether director/choreographer Kevin Bellie is responsible for coaxing this almost buffoonish portrayal out of the talented actor or if Hogenmiller simply thought that by going completely overboard he’d be even funnier. Whichever, it doesn’t work; sadly we have a performance that’s simply unrestrained, self-indulgent and seldom entertaining.
On the other hand, Brian Acker is perfect as Joe Hardy, the handsome, younger, more athletic version of middle-aged Joe Boyd (terrifically acted with youthful enthusiasm and beautifully sung by Kirk Swenk), the Washington Senators fan who trades his spiritual self to the devil so that his beloved Washington Senators will finally win the Pennant. Acker is a charismatic actor who not only sings like a dream but has all the right moves as a dancer, as well. Judy Knudtson breaks the audience’s hearts as Meg, Joe Boyd’s faithful wife who finds herself abandoned when her husband suddenly and mysteriously disappears. The actress seems to have patterned Meg after Jane Wyatt from TV’s “Father Knows Best.” The actress’ finest moments come during her heartfelt duets with Mr. Acker (“A Man Doesn’t Know” and the gorgeous “Near to You”). In these three performances come the heart and soul of this production.
Chicago favorite actress Jenny Lamb (breathtaking in such diverse productions as “Trainspotting USA” and as Sally Bowles in LOW’s “Cabaret”) owns the stage as Gloria Thorpe. Playing a female sports broadcaster, a rare career choice during the 1950’s, Ms. Lamb is frisky and feisty and full of vim, vigor and virtuosity. Her “Shoeless Joe From Hannibal, Mo,” enthusiastically sung and danced with the entire men’s ensemble, is one of this productions best numbers.
Rick Rapp, fresh from his excellent portrayal of Sitting Bull in LOW’s “Annie Get Your Gun,” is a commanding Van Buren, the team’s managing coach, all brusque and bullheaded with a soft spot for the underdog. Leading the team with the rousing “Heart,” he demonstrates some top notch vocalization. Recent Michigan transplant Erica Evans is lovely, moves well and sings beautifully, but never really convinces as Lola, the sexy temptress originally created by Broadway’s Gwen Verdon. Ms. Evans‘ “Whatever Lola Wants, Lola Gets” doesn’t play as a seduction; however, when teaming up with Acker in the nightclub scene, the duo knocks it out of the ballpark with their “Two Lost Souls.”
On the technical end, Adam Veness has created a flexible, colorful stage design that provides multiple playing levels and detailed textures and nuances. Jesus Perez and Jane De Bondt have fashioned a magnificent array of period-perfect costumes that are bright, multicolored and bring to mind “I Love Lucy” and “Leave It to Beaver,” from their formfitting baseball uniforms to tailored suits and picturesque shirt waist dresses. Kevin Bellie has directed this production with sparkle and his choreography is both challenging and robust.
In a colorful production that offers such an abundance of talent performing so many memorable songs, it’s a little disappointing that some of its performances miss the mark. Audiences seeking a polished production that provides their money’s worth of entertainment and is reminiscent of theatre’s bygone age will love Light Opera Works‘ latest offering; however, playgoers who prefer a shorter, faster-paced evening of theatre may want to look elsewhere for a more contemporary musical production.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented June 7-15 by Light Opera Works at Cahn Auditorium, 600 Emerson St., Evanston, IL.
Tickets are available by calling 847-920-5360 or by going to www.LightOperaWorks.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.