PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Damn Yankees — Who's on Faust?

News   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Damn Yankees — Who's on Faust? The great American musical about the great American pastime, Damn Yankees, came to bat again July 10 at City Center as its second annual Encores! Summer Stars production. It has a longer running schedule, it has more production values, and it has "Heart."
Sean Hayes and Cheyenne Jackson
Sean Hayes and Cheyenne Jackson Photo by Aubrey Reuben

It's a cautionary tale about getting what you ask for — in this case, selling your soul to the devil (here called Mr. Applegate and played, in his New York City stage debut, by Sean Hayes of "Will and Grace" flamboyance). The Emmy winner is assisted by a Tony winner in vamp mode (sexy Jane Krakowski), turning a middle-aged couch-potato into a long-ball hitter, Joe Hardy (Cheyenne Jackson) — just the man who will help the Washington Senators snatch the pennant away from the New York Yankees, who've been hogging it from 1949 to 1953. In the '50s, a soul was a small price to pay. With the italic delivery of Ray Walston (whom he never saw do the show) and the manic behavior of Jerry Lewis (whom he played in a TV movie), Hayes makes himself incredibly at home on the stage. "I think, when you realize life is short, you become fearless," he reasoned. "I knew I had to say yes to something—at some point in my life — and the timing was just right, and it's a short run — to see what it would be like to do Broadway because I had never done that before. [Technically, Encores! is not under the umbrella of Broadway.] It was the perfect scenario, so I said, 'Okay, I'm going to try it to see what it's like. Let's do it.'"

Following Gwen Verdon famously in the part of Lola was, similarly, is an act of courage for Krakowski. "I was thrilled and terrified of the challenge all at once, and I think it's such a good part that I didn't want my fear to stop me from doing it. When I was asked, I was thrilled to be asked, and I just didn't want to not take it because of my fear. It's definitely the biggest dance part I've taken on. And, also I just wanted to do proper justice to Bob Fosse's steps, and, obviously, to Gwen Verdon's genius."

Jackson, a hunky good fit for Joe Hardy, played well with Krakowski, but found real resonance with the relationship with Meg, the wife his alter-ego left. "What drew me most to it is the love story between Joe and Meg. I love that he's faithful to the very end and that actually keeps him going. And I really wanted a chance to work with Randy Graff whom I have loved forever — and I wanted to make that relationship sexy. I wanted to make it believable, and I wanted to make it hot. I wanted people to really feel the connection and the steam between the two of them so I fought hard in rehearsals to do that. A lot of time it's glossed over and it's all about Joe and Lola. It's still important for those relationships to be fleshed out, but the Meg angle was the most interesting for me."

From the downbeat on, conductor Rob Berman proved a great starter, tearing into that golden Richard Adler-Jerry Ross score with emotive aerobics and enthusiasm. Yes, he said, he was having a good time: "It was more fun than I even thought it'd be. Terrific score, song after song."

Of course, slipped into the score three songs into the show is a number that defines showstopper: "[You Gotta Have] Heart," delivered like a Knute Rochne pep-talk by the coach of the cellar-placed Senators (Michael Mulheren) to three distinct and disparate body-types — mountain-sized Rocky (Jimmy Smagula), short and scrappy Smokey (Robert Creighton) and tall and lanky Sohovik (Jimmy Ray Bennett). "Iconic!" is what Bennett called the song. "And to just have four guys standing there together — no glitz and no glamour — just singing a song — it's really so amazing."

"You can feel the people smiling — literally," chimed in Creighton. "They want to sing along, and they get a chance at the curtain call. This is good for me. I left [The Little] Mermaid to do this. Too much fun. Couldn't pass it up. 'Course, I did double-duty till we opened." Next? "I don't know. This on Broadway? How 'bout that? Who knows?"

Smagula has special inspiration for the number: "Richard Adler was once quoted as saying it's his favorite song of all he's written. I think of that every night beforehand.

"Our choreographer, Mary MacLeod, recreated all the Fosse choreography from talking to Nicole Fosse and to Harvey Evans who was in the original national tour of Damn Yankees, from watching videos and the movie. She recreated it for us."

Mulheren, who danced in the last Kiss Me, Kate by brushing up his Shakespeare with Lee Wilkof, took his new showstopper in mock, matter-of-fact stride: "It's what a character actor should do. I check 'em off, one by one. Wish I could do 'Who's Got the Pain?' but 'Heart' is okay. Naw, it's great. You just turn around and sing out."

Veanne Cox also gets a slice of "Heart" — a modest portion — zipping through a fast reprise. "It's one of the greatest musical-theatre songs ever. And the fact I only have to sing a little of it is fantastic. And I get to do it with kids. It's a win-win situation."

Comedienne concentrate Cox gets max laughs out of little — the Jean Stapleton-originated bit of [Meg's] Sister. "It's not easy. You know what they say: 'Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.' Even though it's on and off with this show — when it's on, it's on. No preparation, no breathing, no nothing — laughter aplenty. In all good hopes."

Changing her pace, "I'm going to Washington DC to do Olivia in Twelfth Night and Mrs. Millimant in The Way of the World — two beautiful leading-women roles — so I leave Sister behind and walk into my leading-woman category. I'd like to do a leading woman here, but I'll perfect it out of town and then, hopefully, do it here."

Her stage sister, Meg — Randy Graff — is also DC-bound. "I'm going to do a concert at the Kennedy Center the first weekend in October," she relayed. "They're re-opening the Eisenhower Theatre so we're putting together a little concert."

A Tony winner for City of Angels, Graff conveys — in equal measure — that happiness is a thing called Joe, whether the old model or the new. It's in her eyes. "I'm glad you saw that," she said, returning the serve. "I've been working on that. Well, it's easy to look into Cheyenne's eyes and fall in love. Not too shabby. I think that people really relate to that love story of the troubled marriage — splitting up and coming together and appreciating what they have in each other even more and their love being stronger than ever. I think there are a lot of Megs out there, and a lot of Joe Boyds."

The pre-Cheyenne Joe is played by Chicago's sometimes "Mister Cellophane," P. J. Benjamin, who is also pleased that his often-overlooked subplot is coming front and center in this version. "It's good that that story is being told. A lot of people have been saying that they didn't realize there was that much of a story to it. And it is."

Benjamin's most fondly remembered Broadway show ran only 14 performances and co-starred him with a lab rat — 1980's Charlie and Alegernon. "Algernon was really a girl. We called her a boy, but she was a girl — like Lassie. When she died, I buried her in Forest Lawn, next to Rudolph Valentino. I visit her whenever I'm in L.A."

A longer run awaits him. "I just left the tour of Wicked, and I'm going to be going into Wicked here on Broadway. I start the day after Damn Yankees closes. I'm hoping that this moves, then I can do both shows at the same time if it works out, timing-wise."

Considering the scarcity of Adler-Ross shows (two), Megan Lawrence has amazingly made it into both of the recent New York revivals, running a gamut from Gladys the secretary in The Pajama Game to Gloria the reporter in Damn Yankees. "They were pretty much back-to-back for me so I feel very pleased to be a part of both of them. It has been a challenge because Gloria is a little more sophisticated than I normally play. I'm, normally, much more of a goof-off so this has been quite interesting to do."

Lawrence stepped up to the plate when Ana Gasteyer, originally cast as Gloria, broke her ankle on the first day of rehearsal, playing with her kids on Fire Island. She was at the opening — on crutches — receiving condolences and good wishes.

John Lee Beatty, who's all-too-familiar with City Center space as the de-facto set designer in residence for the Encores! series, had a luxury budget to work with at last. "Not as much as you might think," he cautioned. "It was six or seven times more than an Encores! show, but that's still only about a sixth of what a Broadway show costs. I've never done a Summer Stars show before. I've only done Encores. Physically, it's a lot of work, but you can respect the conventions a little more fully, especially this piece that is so constructed by [co-librettist] George Abbott in that mid-'50s style." Now, he's working on Christmas in July [the How the Grinch Stole Christmas tour].

Director John Rando, who made all of the above happened, was nowhere to be seen on opening night. He was in Williamstown, putting Brooks Ashmanskas, MacIntyre Dixon, Mark Harelik, Tom Hewitt, Tom McGowan, Katherine Meisle, Heidi Neidermeyer, David Pittu, among others through their paces in A Flea in Her Ear. David Ives' adaptation of the George Feydeau farce plays there July 30-Aug. 10.

The Damn Yankees opening-night party never truly left the premises, spilling over into the courtyard adjacent to City Center and eventually encompassing the first floor lobby.

Honored guests of the evening were two surprise catches from the original cast: Shannon Bolin, 91, who was the wife abandoned for baseball, and Rae Allen, 82, who gave a Tony-nominated performance of Gloria Thorp, girl reporter. Bolin, in particular, was still the rah-rah-rah team-player: "I loved it," she trilled. "I just loved the performance tonight. I think they should take it to Broadway — don't you?" Seconding that — "I had a wonderful time" — was Joy Abbott, widow of the Great "Mister A," George Abbott, who directed the show and co-adapted it with Douglass Wallop from Wallop's best-selling novel, "The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant."

Scampering about the party with energy-to-spare were three little boys in white — the grandsons of director-choreographer Bob Fosse — and daughter Nicole.

There was a contingent of 9 to 5 personnel, bound for Los Angeles the second week of August, who had special ties to Damn Yankees. Sporting what he called his "porn star mustache" for the nasty, misogynist boss, Marc Kudisch was there with Kathy Fitzgerald, who will play his cauldron-stirring secretary. Dancer Kevin Kern was there was his wife, Megan Lawrence. Wig and hair designer Paul Huntley, who gave Krakowski a '50s Monroe-like fillip, will be providing some working-girl authenticity for leading-ladies Allison Janney, Megan Hilty and Stephanie J. Block.

Director Richard Maltby and producer Chase Mishkin checked out Damn Yankees. Their new musical, a touching two-hander from Canada called The Story of My Life (book by Brian Hill, songs by Neil Bartram), has been cast. Will Chase and Malcolm Gets will play boyhood pals — straight and gay — when the show tries out in October at Goodspeed.

Legendary costumer Willa Kim was on the arm of Damn Yankees designer William Ivey Long, who freely and gleefully confessed "I was weeping and weeping. Wasn't it charming?" The indefatigable Kim is doin' Dancin', which Roundabout will revive May 5, 2009, at Studio 54. "Then," she beamed proudly, "The Red Eye of Love. It was my first show, and now it is being musicalized. Ted Sperling is directing it."

Sperling, taking the night off from conducting South Pacific, filled in a few more blanks. "John Wulp adapted it with Arnold Weinstein, who wrote the play, and the music is by a man named Jan Warner. It's beautiful music. We've been working on it together now for around a year. We took it to the O'Neill Center last summer, and now we're planning to do another developmental workshop this fall in New York."

Tina Fey at the opening
photo by Aubrey Reuben

Other prominent and familiar faces at Damn Yankees included Tina Fey (Krakowski's co-star on "30 Rock" and its creator), Tony Walton (preparing to unveil his sets for A Tale of Two Cities to cast, crew and press on July 16), Michael Urie of "Ugly Betty," Gerard Alessandrini (unpressured about opening a new season of Forbidden Broadway — "I haven't really thought about that. I just keep putting new numbers in"), Conrad John Schuck, Tony-winning choreographer Donald Saddler and Encores! mainstays like conductor Rob Fisher (prepping Hair for the Delacorte in August) and director-choreographer Kathleen Marshall (with future projects a-perking). CBS's Mo Rocca loved the evening but managed, as is his wont, a mock canard: "My only complaint is that I thought this show was going to star A-Rod, Cynthia and Madonna. That's what I thought. In this era of reality TV, that's where they'd go. I was surprised. I was waiting for Madonna to sing 'Whatever Lola's Mother Wants.'"

For more photos from the opening night, click here.

The cast of <i>Damn Yankees</i> at curtain call.
The cast of Damn Yankees at curtain call. Photo by Aubrey Reuben
Today’s Most Popular News: