When I was 10, there was only one musical worth knowing, and it was about baseball. The hills may have been alive for some youngsters, but I just wanted to punch them in their lumpy Bavarian faces. Damn Yankees was the show for me. It had guys wearing cleats, playing catch (and getting paid for it!), and swapping jokes in the locker room. It had the devil and magic tricks and a bad word in the title. Best of all, it had Lola.
In Richard Adler, Jerry Ross and George Abbott's musical, Lola is the hubba-hubba bombshell employed by Mr. Applegate (aka The Devil) in his soul-selling scheme. My family still tells a story -- something about a slack jaw and lolling tongue -- about how impressed I was with her: As far as my 10-year-old self was concerned, whatever Lola wanted, I was ready to give.
Seeing Briane Green's performance in Damn Yankees (at the Civic through June 14), made me 10 all over again. In her opening number, entitled "A Little Brains, a Little Talent," Green has a lot more than a little of both -- along with a lot more than the requisite number of sashays, hip-wiggles and pouty-lipped expressions that the part demands. Her voice is not especially strong, but then Lola is one part where the visual can overwhelm the vocal.
Lola's job, after all, is to seduce Joe Hardy into sticking to his end of the deal, which runs something like this -- I promise you my eternal soul, you turn me into Joltin' Joe Dimaggio (only for the Washington Senators, not those damn Yankees). In the locker-room seduction scene, "Whatever Lola Wants," with all of her stomping on tables, grabbing her man by the necktie and stripping down to her sex-kitten suit, Green's not seducing poor, naive Joe so much as she's seducing the entire audience. (Green, it must be mentioned, is the wife of George Green, who plays ball in this production, who handles circulation and promotions for The Inlander, and who, if I say any more suggestive things about his wife, will march up to my office and pummel me.)
As a director, Kasey R.T. Graham hits with power, adding several well-observed moments. They include various members of the 1958 Washington Senators schmoozing with patrons before the "game"; rousing pregame introductions of all the players, along with a nice a cappella rendition of the National Anthem; and an effective son-et-lumiere transition from the old, graying Joe Boyd to the younger, more vibrant hunk of a ballplayer. Graham choreographs the show, too, and he's inventive, introducing everything from country square dance and tap ("Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, MO") to urban stomp (at the Lost Souls Nightclub in Limbo, where Joe and Lola are temporarily stuck). While the boys of summer are crooning about having to have "miles and miles and miles of Heart," three of them are in -- and out -- of the showers.
The plot that's full of such activity comes about, of course, because middle-aged Joe mutters to himself that he'd sell his soul if his beloved Senators could get just one long-ball hitter -- and because he's overheard by the devilish Mr. Applegate, who's only too willing to take Joe at his word.
If it is possible to overact when playing the Archnemesis from Hell, Robert Wamsley manages to do so. There's a reason that Ray Walston was comparatively tight-lipped and reserved in the movie: Later on, when things don't turn out Applegate's way, it gives the actor somewhere to go. With eyebrows raised and lips curled and voice snarling, with the sudden intake of haughty breath, Wamsley plays the Devil as a melodramatic villain who's a bit insecure about whether this Hardy fellow will go for the soul-selling bit -- never mind that he's been leading souls astray since, oh, the beginning of time.
Sure, Applegate has to do a sales job on both Joe and the entire ball club, but his plan goes smoothly at least until late in the first act -- and even then he's Satan, he's in control. Later on, when matters start spinning out of control and Applegate needs to lament his own circumstances, there's much to admire. For example, during "Those Were the Good Old Days," Applegate's comic second-act lament for the times when the Satan business was a lot easier, Wamsley practically channels Zero Mostel. Then there's a sequence when Applegate is exasperated with Lola's lack of progress on the temptation front. Wamsley parodies her seductiveness, and he's hilarious. Characteristically, he's at his best when his character is at the center of attention.
As young Joe Hardy, Russell Seaton knocks tunes out of the park. Particularly in the second act, he shows great range, moving from the tenderness of "Near to You" with his wife, Meg Boyd (played by Scarlett Hepworth) to the Mardi Gras exuberance of the nightclub sequence, then to the energized fatalism of his duet with Lola in "Two Lost Souls" (you couldn't ask for better). In his acting, too -- as the hayseed ballplayer, as the devoted husband -- Seaton is convincing.
One of the many strengths of this production is that it reminds playgoers that there's more than just Lola and baseball to this musical: There's the overarching story of a man giving up a child-like wish for the sake of a happy married life. He learns not to idolize his team.
Damn Yankees, hell. Damn Senators: Every night, after all, they get to watch Lola seduce one of their boys.
Publication date: 05/22/03