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REVIEW: "Damn Yankees" is devilishly good fun

UMD Theater served up a fitting tribute to the grand old game with its production of a grand old musical that opened Thursday at the Marshall Performing Arts Center.

The game? Dealing with the devil, which had been around for thousands of years before Abner Doubleday devised his quaint little amusement. The play: “Damn Yankees,” with words and music by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross and book by George Abbott and Douglass Wallop. It is the story of an elderly man who sells his soul to the devil for the chance to be young again, and to be the baseball star he’d always wanted to be, but changes his mind because he can’t stand separation from his wife. Its best-known musical numbers are “(You Gotta Have) Heart” and “Whatever Lola Wants.”

Director Ann Bergeron, who also choreographed, has studded the show with delightful dance numbers such as “Shoeless Joe From Hannibal, Mo.,” which morphed from a hoedown into a tap routine, with impressive acrobatics from actors in the roles of Washington Senators ballplayers. It vied for audience approval with the snazzy Act II number, “Two Lost Souls.”

Bergeron seems to have instilled genuine team spirit in the actors playing the Senators. Their sense of oneness is best seen in their choreographed body language in “The Game.”

As the diabolical Applegate, Ryan James Fargo steals the show with his gleeful malevolence, elegant — almost effete — manner and razor-sharp timing. His solo number, “Those Were the Good Old Days,” in which he recalls fondly the mayhem for which he’s been responsible, was another audience hit.

Jared Walz, filling in for scheduled guest actor Michael Brindisi who had a medical emergency, plays Joe Boyd, the old man who would become Joe Hardy. Walz' brief time on stage hardly gave him time to exhibit his range, but he was completely credible. He'll continue in the role for the rest of the production's run.

As the young ballplayer, Joe Hardy, Jayson Speters is genuine and likeable, with a fine singing voice—strong, with a good range and well-modulated.

And Colleen Lafeber perfectly captured the tenacity of sportswriter Gloria, who won’t give up her pursuit of the star ballplayer’s mysterious past. She also dazzles as the anchor in the “Shoeless Joe” number.

As Lola, assigned by Applegate to distract young Joe from pining for his wife, Elise Benson is attractive, a decent actress and singer with a gift for physical comedy, which served well until she carried the comic approach into the song “Whatever Lola Wants.” Her mugging completely unsexed the sultry musical seduction attempt.

The opening night performance included a surprising number of flaws for a UMD production. The orchestra too often overwhelmed singers and a couple of dance numbers seemed inadequately rehearsed. What appeared to be a two-projector system for throwing images on a large scrim was not carefully aligned, giving some of the images a headache-producing blur. And, at times, set changes behind the scrim were all too visible.

Although Costume Designer Jenna Houck knocked it out of the park with Applegate’s pin-striped and flame-colored suits, each perfectly accessorized, she also hit into a double play with some of the women’s distinctly unflattering outfits.

Paul Brissett is a Duluth writer and amateur actor who has performed in numerous community theater productions.

IF YOU GO

What: “Damn Yankees”

Where: Marshall Performing Arts Center, UMD

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday and April 30–May 3 and 2 p.m. April 27

How much: $18, but $13 seniors, $15 UMD faculty/staff, $8 students/children and $6 UMD students

For information: tickets.umn.edu or (218) 726-8561

The review: Devilishly good fun.

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