Just about a year ago intrepid Bostonians trooped out to see a new musical by two little-known composers, Richard Adler and Jerry Ross. The opening night audience had no special expectations, so that when the show turned out to be the best musical in years, they were pleasantly surprised and delighted with their find. This week, people will go to the Shubert to see the latest Ross-Adler musical with high hopes, expecting a fresh score with next month's Hit Parade in the overture. Damn Yankees won't let them down; it is a better show than Pajama Game.
The big improvement in the composers' technique is the more careful weaving of sings into book. "There Once was a Man" and "Steam Heat" were show-stoppers no one would quarrel with, but they could claim no relevance to the pajama industry. Damn Yankees has a tight unity in all departments, the songs contribute to the action, and the action is weirdly plausible and even exciting. From "The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant," you may know the plot A middle-aged baseball fan sells his soul to the devil in order to become a young sports hero and rescues the Washington Senators from their perennial losses. The fan reserve the right to cancel the bargain on one particular midnight in the fall. From there on, it is a contest between the devil, a Mr. Applegate, and the retreaded slugger. Having pushed out a host of good songs in the first act, Ross and Adler go home about half an hour before the musical ends, but the intricacies and humor of the plot carry the show effortlessly.
As opposed to the usual musical comedy paste board people, Damn Yankees develops a stage full of entertaining characters. Ray Walston, as Applegate, seemed to me the best of all. A fast-talking pitchman with fire-red tie and sox, Walston has the cards, and all the best lines, stacked in his favor. Red-haired Gwen Verdon, as a witch Applegate imports from 'Chicago, sings a little and dances a lot. If you've heard "Whatever Lola Wants," you may have dismissed it is standard juke-box gruel. The meal may seem finer after you watch Miss Verdon grinding it. She also takes part in a prolonged number called "Musical Chairs," which has no end of possibilities and no beginning of realizing them. That dance ends the first act and an obvious song about baseball training rules opend the second. Otherwise the material is consistent, and bright, and everything the season's best musical should be.
Along with everyone else in the audience, my favorite songs were "Heart" and "Those Were the Good Old Days" which were dished up in uneven helpings, it seemed. "Heart" is pumped a little too much, especially with two reprises in the second act. And Good Old Days," a gruesome duet between the witch and the warlock, is lost in the welter of first act brilliance. Expanding the number and moving it to early after intermission--before Lola begins to soften--would strengthen the whole last half of the show.
Even Miss Verdon's calculating gyrations don't put her way out in front of the rest of the east. As befits a baseball musical, Damn Yankees is a team effort. Stephen Douglass as the young players, Robert Shafter as the cocoon from which Douglass emerges, and Shannon Bolin as a baseball widow all have acting as well as singing talent. When Douglass sings "A Man Doesn't Know" or Shafter sings "Goodbye, Old Girl" the show takes on a melodious wistfulness surprising, and welcome, in an evening so high-spirited.
The scenery and costumes by William and Jean Eckart were authentic when they must be, fantastic whenever possible. The entire production had all the markings of Adler-Ross; George Abbett's flawless timing and pacc, a banjo in the orchestra, and a score of pearls dangling over a unique script. Damn Yankees, it seems safe enough to wager, will be around when the hurly burly's done, when the Series is lost or won.