Monday, August 22, 2022

Crowd Pleasers: Damn Yankees and Gaslight at the Shaw Festival

Jay Turvey with the Ballplayers in Damn Yankees, at the Shaw Festival. (Photo: Michael Cooper)

Richard Adler and Jerry Ross might have entered the pantheon of Broadway songwriters if fate hadn’t extinguished their star so fast. Adler was thirty-one and Ross twenty-eight when George Abbott commissioned them to write the score for The Pajama Game (1954), adapted by Abbott and Richard Bissell from Bissell’s novel 7-1/2 Cents, about the tensions between labor and management in a Midwestern pajama factory. It was a legendary show: Abbott and Jerome Robbins co-directed, a young Bob Fosse staged the dances, and it ran for three years. (A boisterous movie version in 1957, helmed by Abbott and Stanley Donen, captures the spirit of the original, with all but two members of the Broadway cast reprising their performances.) In 1955 lightning struck again for Adler and Ross with Damn Yankees. Adapted by Abbott and Douglass Wallop from Wallop’s book The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant, Damn Yankees was as big a hit as The Pajama Game. But six months after its triumphant premiere, Ross died suddenly of lung disease. Adler never had another success, alone or with a collaborator, though his lovely score for the South Africa-set musical Kwamina, which he wrote for his wife, Sally Ann Howes, is ripe for rediscovery. (Its interracial love story was undoubtedly too controversial for 1961.)

Both The Pajama Game and Damn Yankees are first-rate golden-age Broadway musicals, though the former has a more solid rep, perhaps because when Abbott and Donen tried to repeat the trick of transferring Damn Yankees to the screen in 1958 with practically everybody from the stage version, it didn’t quite work. And though its only major revival, in 1994, had Victor Garber and Bebe Neuwirth, it was brassy and overproduced. The Pajama Game has a more elegant structure and a stronger second act, but when it’s done right, Damn Yankees is irresistible. That was certainly my experience at the current revival at the Shaw Festival, directed by Brian Hill and choreographed by Allison Plamondon. Wallop’s plot is a clever rewrite of the Faust story. Joe Boyd (Shane Carty), a middle-aged baseball fan devoted to his home team, the Washington Senators, makes a pact with the devil, a.k.a. Mr. Applegate (Mike Nadajewski), to sell his soul in return for a Senators’ pennant victory against the famously unassailable Yankees. Applegate goes him one better: he turns Joe Boyd into Joe Hardy (James Daly), a young ballplayer with magical gifts both at bat and in the field. But Joe, a real estate salesman, insists on an escape clause, a date by which he can change his mind and return to his beloved wife Meg (Patty Jamieson). So Applegate summons up his most reliable siren, Lola, to try to make Joe forget Meg. The plan backfires: instead of Joe’s falling for hard-boiled Lola, she winds up falling for him and, so to speak, playing for his team against Satan.

I’ll admit I was worried about this Damn Yankees in the opening few minutes. Under the direction of Paul Sportelli, the band offers a blurry rendition of the overture, and Cory Sincennes’ set is clumsy and lackluster, a series of backdrops papered with 1950s ads fronted by unattractive pieces – blocky wooden cabinets for the locker room, cramped bleachers for the ballpark.  The Shaw fights an ongoing battle with the Festival Theatre stage when it mounts the annual musical: there never seem to be enough wit and invention, enough visual ideas, to fill the space. But as soon as the chorus, divided into couples, joins Carty and Jamieson in the opening song, “Six Months Out of Every Year,” gliding into the Boyds’ living room on easy chairs as the women echo Meg’s complaint about losing her hubby to the baseball season, the show springs into a relaxed buoyancy and doesn’t come down until the curtain call is over.

All the big group numbers are winners here: “Heart,” “Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, Mo,” “Who’s Got the Pain?,” “The Game,” “Two Lost Souls.” They’re sung and danced by a strong, robust ensemble, marked with fine contributions from, among others, Jay Turvey as the coach, Van Buren, Kevin MacLachlan as the bespectacled, none-too-bright ballplayer Smokey and Olivia Sinclair-Brisbane – who gets to wear Sincennes’s spiffiest costumes – as the persistent local reporter Gloria Thorpe. When I saw the show, Élodie Gillett had just stepped into the role of Lola, replacing Kimberley Rampersad, and she seemed a little shaky on her first song, “A Little Brains, A Little Talent,” but by the time she got to “Whatever Lola Wants” her performance was firmly in place. The romantic partnering in the show is complicated. Meg is matched with Joe Boyd; when he morphs into Joe Hardy, he’s still her Joe, even though she doesn’t know it (he rents a room in her house so he can stay near her), but the narrative and the score keep pairing him with Lola, for whom he develops a fondness if not a sexual attraction, while his sweetness and sincerity melt her cold heart. I understand that Damn Yankees isn’t Fiddler on the Roof, but even a lighthearted musical has to be played with emotional authenticity; if these relationships don’t have it, the show has no backbone and no trajectory. Carty and Jamieson, Jamieson and Daly, and Daly and Gillett keep providing that authenticity in their songs (“Goodbye, Old Girl,” “A Man Doesn’t Know,” “Near to You,” “Two Lost Souls”) and also in their book moments. I want to single out James Daly because it’s easy to play Joe Hardy as a handsome all-American cipher, as Tab Hunter does in the movie. And Daly is so unstressed in the part – and so natural and untheatrical in his readings of the ballads – that you might underrate the feeling behind what he does. He manages to be completely in sync with both Gillett and Jamieson.

The only performer I wasn’t sold on was Mike Nadajewski. He’s certainly skilled, but his take on Applegate is all shtick, and it starts to repeat itself. It’s not his fault, though, that the Devil’s solo, “Those Were the Good Old Days,” doesn’t come off; in my opinion, it never does. Villain numbers in musicals – “The Seven Deadly Virtues” in Camelot, “So Long, Big Guy” in It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman, “I Shall Miss You, Holmes” in Baker Street and so on – are pretty much a losing proposition. (The exception that proves the rule is “It’s Been Grand Knowing You” from She Loves Me.) However, I wouldn’t say that the Adler-Ross score has any other songs I wasn’t delighted to hear again.

André Morin and Julie Lumsden in Gaslight, at the Shaw Festival. (Photo: David Cooper)

Patrick Hamilton’s Gaslight is an ingenious potboiler that always gets an audience going. The protagonist is a young wife in turn-of-the-twentieth-century London whose malevolent husband has persuaded her that she’s going mad as her mother did before her by hiding things and blaming it on her. But before he can succeed in locking her away she acquires an unexpected ally, a retired police detective who has figured out that her husband murdered the last resident of their shadowy Gothic pile and is still trying to locate her elusive jewels. The play was titled Angel Street when it was first produced in England in 1938, but the two movie versions – the English one from 1940, with Diana Wynyard and Anton Walbrook, and the superior Hollywood one from 1944, directed by George Cukor and starring Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer and Joseph Cotton as the detective – are called Gaslight, an allusion to the mysteriously shifting lighting in the heroine’s parlor. And no revival is likely to revert to the original title now that the term “gaslighting” is so entrenched in the modern vocabulary.

In the Shaw production, directed by Kelli Fox, Julie Lumsden is extremely good in the lead, here called Bella, and Kate Hennig and Julia Course lend her able support as the two domestics, pragmatic, clear-headed Elizabeth and flirty, insolent Nancy. But the casting of André Morin as Jack, the husband, is bewildering: he isn’t remotely dashing or seductive, so you can’t believe he could ever have exerted so much influence on Bella. As for Rough, the detective, he’s no longer in the play. In Johnna Wright and Patty Jamieson’s adaptation, he never makes an appearance at all, so Bella has to solve the mystery all by herself and defeat Jack with Elizabeth’s help. Ah, the virtues of sisterhood. As a feminist touch, this revision strikes me as strictly on the fourteen-year-old level. And it doesn’t make much sense. In the most famous scene in the play – the one everyone remembers from the movie, where Bergman plays it so brilliantly – the detective leaves the wife to watch over the husband for a few minutes after he’s been tied up and rendered helpless. When he tries to work his wiles on his victim for the last time, begging her to set him free, she pretends to be so confused – the state he reduced her to before the detective came to her aid – that she can’t recall where she put the scissors. If Bella has worked out her husband’s plan by intermission, this piece of dark comedy feels like it belongs in another play – you know, the one Patrick Hamilton actually wrote. The story is creepy enough to work on some level anyway, and the three women, especially Lumsden, make it worth watching.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.  

No comments:

Post a Comment