Commentary: 'Damn Yankees' not likely to inspire 'Encores!'

New production good, but not incredible

It's not likely that the limited-run revival of "Damn Yankees," which officially debuted Thursday at the City Center for a three-week run (following five days of prevues), will inspire demands for a open-ended Broadway run as three former "Encores!" presentations so famously have done.

The most spectacular of the transfers has been, as any Broadway addict can tell you, "Chicago," which is still running 11 years after its brief "Encores!" run launched a November 1996 Main Stem revival; also "Gypsy," which caused so much buzz as the first "Summer Encores!" presentation last year that it led to the current redo now draped with Tonys for Patti LuPone, Boyd Gaines and Laura Benanti. There also was "Wonderful Town," sensationally done by Donna Murphy at a past "Encores" outing. It begat a Broadway run that received thumbs-up reviews but had its run shortened by Murphy's ongoing health problems.

The new "Yankees" certainly has its entertaining and buoyant moments, but unlike those other knockouts, it never reaches heights higher than that of an average national touring production (think St. Louis Muni Opera.)

With Broadway ticket prices maxing at $110 per seat, any legiter needs more snap, crackle and pop than this new show possesses to justify a Main Stem gamble. (For the record, the City Center price top for the show also is $110, a far cry from days of yore, when the center was famous for delivering short-term legit revivals with star names -- Charlton Heston in "Mister Roberts," Helen Hayes in "The Glass Menagerie," Florence Henderson as Laurie and Barbara Cook as Ado Annie in "Oklahoma!" et al. -- for bargain prices at least two-thirds lower than a Broadway ticket cost at that time.)

In "Yankees," directed by "Encores!" regular John Rando ("Urinetown"), the cast delivers well if not spectacularly. Sean Hayes makes an amusing Devil, always more comical than threatening, and he adds considerable fun and flair to the proceedings. Hayes also might be the first "Yankee" Devil to deliver his big solo number "Those Were the Good Old Days" not as a full-out 11 o'clock number but seated at a piano for most of it. It dilutes the number significantly but does let the actor's expertise on piano keys help cover the limitations of his singing pipes.

As his sidekick Lola -- as in "Whatever Lola wants, Lola gets" -- Jane Krakowski is a dazzler in the Marilyn Monroe manner, sings well, dances brightly and seduces easily. It's only when she is called on to deliver the tricky and challenging dance number "Who's Got the Pain" that the genius of Gwen Verdon -- for whom Bob Fosse originally created the number -- is particularly re-emphasized. (For comparisons, one should check out Verdon doing the number in the 1958 "Yankees" film version, available on DVD; it has the added plus of Fosse as her partner.).

John Selya, Krakowski's dancemate in this legiter, certainly is no slouch and an admirable Fosse replacement. Cheyenne Jackson makes a physically impressive Joe Hardy, who in the story is the younger version of a middle-aged, out-of-shape baseball fan (P.J. Benjamin) who makes a bargain with the Devil to become a younger, fitter baseball dynamo in order to help his favorite team, the Washington Senators, win the pennant. Randy Graff adds considerable heart to the proceedings as the older Joe's (temporarily) abandoned wife.

In an era when new Broadway musicals for the most part are woefully devoid of hummable songs, this Richard Adler-Jerry Ross score sounds better than ever, particular thanks to "(You Gotta Have) Heart," "Whatever Lola Wants," "Two Lost Souls" and "Near to You."

Bottom line: This edition of a Broadway hit from the past, once seen, won't linger long in the memory, but it makes for a pleasant respite from the real world, if one opts to dole out the ticket price to see it.

Don't, however, expect to be comfortable: The City Center seats are among the smallest and most cramped in any New York theater. Hopefully, that'll be improved when the house closes in fall 2009 for an extensive upgrade and makeover.

Comings and goings

Closed on Sunday: David Mamet's anti-Bush comedy "November" at the Barrymore, with Nathan Lane and Laurie Metcalf, after 205 performances and 33 prevues. Meanwhile, opening Thursday is the new Hunter Bell-Jeff Bowen musical "(title of show)" at the Lyceum.

Robert Osborne is the primetime host and anchor of Turner Classic Movies