EmptyFreud Playhouse, UCLA, Westwood
Through Nov. 25
When Joe Torre was hired to rejuvenate the Dodgers two days before Reprise!'s new artistic director Jason Alexander's updated production of "Damn Yankees" opened at the Freud, it must have seemed like Christmas and Hanukkah had arrived early.
The adaptation makes Joe Hardy (Ty Taylor), Applegate (Cleavant Derricks) and their entourage mostly black and the players ethnically diverse. Hardy's team is no longer the perennial American League doormats, the Washington Senators, but one of the most successful (if recently underachieving) franchises, the Los Angeles Dodgers. There's Dodger-related product placement and lots of pop culture references.
The new approach works in a gentrified way, and though the showdown at the end is muddled, Alexander might actually bring in the younger, less Broadway-hip curiosity-seekers he probably is hoping to reach.
The production is assembled from a motley though often exceptional crew. Taylor sings with power, passion and beauty but shows little interest in acting or dancing. Meg Gillentine as the eternal seductress Lola has an unforgettably sexy presence and can act and sing; unfortunately, both her big numbers, "A Little Brains, a Little Talent" and "Whatever Lola Wants," are rushed by what seems like a lack of directorial discipline. Derricks delivers a home run with "Those Were the Good Old Days" but generally draws too much attention to his blustering antics and too little to his evil intentions.
Whether acting or singing, Ken Page and Armelia McQueen make a magnificent Mr. and Mrs. Boyd (though they are definitely more than the middle-aged couple the book calls for), with McQueen's warmth and energy outstanding. The odd couple of Lillias White and Jackee Harry delight the audience the whole evening, the former raising the roof with her gospel account of "Heart," the latter with her familiar, larger-than-life persona. And Lesli Margherita, as the sportswriting provocateur who upsets a number of well-laid plans, triumphs with "Shoeless Joe From Hannibal, MO" and its new funky attitude.
However, Lee Martino's exuberant choreography, while it copes about as well as one could hope for with the cramped Freud stage, never threatens Bob Fosse's original, and the dancers, though they are earnest, have trouble singing in tune. The men's notions of how to throw, catch and hit a baseball need to be either more stylized or more accurate.
The miking of the singers, whether to amplify them or add ambience to the dry Freud acoustic, too often results in disembodied voices. The orchestra, except for a booming low end, often sounds like an AM radio.
Despite the quibbles, the Adler-Ross show is as bulletproof as it was 50 years ago, and the infectious score, breathless dramatic action and great characters make the nearly three hours pass quickly. There's no doubt either that visions of Gillentine will float through many a theatergoer's dream, and that men and women and boys and girls will fervently hope that Torre finds his own Joe Hardy to raise the real-life Dodgers' fortunes.
Presented by Reprise! Broadway's Best
Words-music: Richard Adler and Jerry Ross
Book: George Abbott and Douglass Wallop
Director/adapted by: Jason Alexander
Choreographer: Lee Martino
Music director: Gerald Sternbach
Set/lighting designer: Francois-Pierre Couture
Costume designer: Christina Haatainen Jones
Sound designer: Philip G. Allen
Original orchestrations: Don Walker
Revival orchestrations: Douglas Besterman
Additional orchestrations: Darryl Archibald
Casting director: Michael Donovan
Applegate: Cleavant Derricks
Lola: Meg Gillentine
Joe Hardy: Ty Taylor
Gloria: Lesli Margherita
Meg: Armelia McQueen
Joe Boyd: Ken Page
Dory: Lillias White
Sister: Jackee Harry
Coach Burns: Hassan El-Amin