Live theater, unsolicited commentary. From Detroit to Lansing.


October is playoff season, and the Encore Musical Theatre Company hopes to spread some of that baseball fever in Damn Yankees (words and music by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross; book by George Abbott and Douglass Wallop). Indeed, many themes of this 55-year-old musical are still relevant to contemporary audiences: the questionable benefits of all-consuming fandom, the rift that sports causes in romantic relationships, and the timeless YANKEES SUCK.

The show's setting really captures a summer-baseball feeling, with Daniel C. Walker's incredible whirling and folding grass-green set plus bright-orange dirt and chalk line accents. Yet with help from his ambitious lighting, the scenes off the field don't feel like they're still on the diamond. Period costumes by Colleen E. Meyer pop with clean, Rockwell brightness. The play is preceded with the singing of the national anthem, and concessions at the rear of the theater call out to patrons hungry for peanuts or a hot dog. It's a nostalgic take on America's pastime, a simpler era when a grown man could sell his soul to the devil, leave his family and work behind, age negative-forty years, walk on with his favorite team midseason as the best hitter anyone's ever seen, lead the Senators to the pennant, and maybe even get away with it all.

Steve DeBruyne masterfully physicalizes the transition from elderly fan Joe Boyd to youthful prodigy Joe Hardy. His best moments are with wife Meg (Sonja Marquis), from whom young Joe rents a room in order to be near to her without revealing himself. The surging warmth of their platonic across-the-divide relationship really sparks, perhaps even too well, as Joe's determination to stick with baseball instead of returning to Meg becomes increasingly difficult to comprehend. As Mr. Applegate, Tobin Hissong is an exceptional comic devil, in control but not too vicious, begging to be foiled. His relish in the role is thorough, from a showy number about the good ol' days of corrupting the living all the way down to his idiosyncratic pronunciation. Numerous supporting roles are highlighted, from the go-go sports reporter with something to prove (Thalia Schramm) to gruff team manager and Everycoach Benny Van Buren (Leo Zainea). Director Dan Cooney has an eye for staging, but sometimes loses track of the energy inherent in the show's best scenes. Similarly, Barbara F. Cullen's choreography shines in some places, especially in the ballplayers' painstakingly stylized movements, but this appears to have occurred directly at the expense of other numbers that founder. Strong singing is backed by a five-piece band led by music director Tyler Driskill.

With the rose-colored look back a half century comes a few details that don't age well, in particular some prevailing condescension toward women, but most of the show is pretty wholesome fun. Still, for a production that's actively countering the mild expletive in its title by calling itself an "all-American family musical" (emphasis mine), it does have to contend with the issue of some risqué subject matter. To be clear, there's nothing outright inappropriate in the show, but there are a few suggestive songs, not to mention Applebee's girl Friday, the master temptress Lola (MaryJo Cuppone), who's commissioned specifically to destroy Joe by means of the oldest trick in the book. For a character whose powers of seduction supposedly rival Delilah's, Cooney and Cuppone are noticeably timid with Lola's torch songs, opting for a sort of Disney-fied sex appeal that does sap some power from the character. Yet while her much-ballyhooed skills aren't exactly ironclad, Cuppone holds her own as Hissong's sidekick and confidante, especially when Lola's conscience starts to get the better of her.

Stumbles aside, this Damn Yankees is a plucky piece with many facets. For a show about good versus evil, it scores points with a playful devil whose bad streak is thwarted by very human weaknesses. For a show about a baseball team, it boasts a deep bullpen of singers and dancers whose energy carries it through impressive big numbers. And for a show about one marriage triumphing over supernatural hardships, the tender DeBruyne and Marquis hit one out of the park.


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