Richard Adler and Jerry Ross: Damn Yankees

Guildhall School of Music and Drama

Silk Street Theatre, London, 4 july 2009  3.5stars

Damn Yankees
In the 1950s, the Broadway musical attained a cultural respectability it had never enjoyed before and would hold onto for only a short time. Part of this was a result of the association many of these works had with established plays or books – it's surely no coincidence that Shaw's Pygmalion gave birth to a great musical such as My Fair Lady, and likewise Bernstein's West Side Story came out of Romeo and Juliet, Candide derived from the classic novella of the same name, and The King and I came from the film Anna and the King (itself based on a strong book).

For Damn Yankees, Richard Adler and Jerry Ross looked to no less a story than the Faust legend, which they updated to 1950s America. The tale is given a twist by making the Faust character a baseball fanatic, Joe, who sells his soul to the Devil (Mr Applegate) and in return becomes the country's greatest baseballer. He joins his favourite team, the Washington Senators, and leads them to victory against the eponymous Yankees, but unlike the Goethe original, love manages to conquer all and Joe returns to his wife in the final scene, in spite of the temptations of the sexy Lola.

Newly revived at London's Guildhall School of Music and Drama, Damn Yankees remains a powerful work, not least because of its witty book and catchy songs, and even if its 1950s flavour now seems endearing rather than contemporary, the universality of the themes has more than stood the test of time. Martin Connor's production strikes absolutely the right note: period style is mocked, but always lovingly, and there's lots of detail in the direction of the singers. Mark Bailey's designs are utterly resourceful, even if they're not lavish: the stadium is the main set, with Applegate's devilishly red bedroom, the changing room, Joe's living room and the courtroom pulled on as cut-outs. Applegate's tricks are also brilliantly done, considering it's a conservatoire production, and little things like having baseball bats as the wings help give the show atmosphere on a budget.

There's a heartening ensemble feel about the production, but it has to be said that of the leads, the men fare better than the women. Part of this, I think, is because the cast consists of actors rather than voice students. Nevertheless, Mark Desebrock's Joe Hardy is vocally outstanding, with a nice bright voice that fully does justice to lyrical songs such as 'Goodbye Old Girl', 'A Man Doesn't Know' and 'Near to You'. There's also a touching simplicity about his performance that makes the moral strength of his character – who does not ultimately capitulate to Lola and Applegate – more credible than in other productions I have seen.

Still, it has to be said that it's Terence Keeley who brings the house down as Applegate. What a performance: on the one hand, he completely inhabits book-writer George Abbott's reconception of the Devil character as a man of more cunning than power (at one point he alludes to all the money he's spending on costumes); and on the other, his showstopping 'Those Were the Good Old Days' is augmented by a number of clever tricks and is delivered with all the aplomb required of a leading character actor. Keely and Desebrock certainly have what it takes to get on the professional stage.

Similarly, Anna McSweeney acts with pathos as Meg, but she struggled at this performance to maintain her tuning, especially during the higher passages. Lauren O'Neil came into her own during Lola's faux-Latin scene but does not have the huskiness of voice or quite the ease needed to fill Gwen Verdon's shoes in this role.

Most of the rest of the cast is excellent too, with the big numbers like 'Six Months Out of Every Year', 'Shoeless Joe', 'The Game' and especially 'You've Gotta Have Heart' providing highlights. No fewer than thirty players are in the pit band for this production – a near-miracle, considering that it's rare to get more than twenty in professional West End productions nowadays (seventeen for the recent Carousel was considered a lot); Don Walker's orchestrations (which were not credited in the programme, quite shockingly) came across extremely well after a slightly sloppy Overture.

Three performances remain for this Tony Award-winning show, which marked the end of the brief collaboration between Adler and Ross. The latter died at the age of twenty-nine, having written two of the biggest Broadway hits of the 1950s (the other was The Pajama Game) – perhaps a cue to seize the day and grab the rare opportunity to see Damn Yankees while you can.

By Dominic McHugh

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