The French loved him when America all but deserted him. But who cares what the French think? Now Jerry Lewis is enjoying a revival of public favor guaranteed to increase an already endless ego--fully displayed in the slick and (mostly) charming Damn Yankees. Even the death of his erstwhile sidekick Dean Martin last week contributed to the nostalgic atmosphere at the Buell Theatre. With its oh-so-Fifties Leave It to Beaver sentiments, Damn Yankees is perhaps the perfect ironic vehicle for Lewis, a funny man with a near-legendary mean streak: He plays the Devil.
It's the twentysomething and thirtysomething crowd that appears to be most enraptured by Lewis's updated, still-familiar shtick--well-heeled young folks who watched him on TV when they were kids. The baseball-themed Yankees opened to rapturous laughter and applause usually reserved for sports stars or rock icons; all Lewis had to do was walk out on stage. Every time he quoted from his old repertoire--the peculiar Lewis mugging, goofy liquid movement, head-bobbing and pre-adolescent high-pitched voice--the crowd went nuts. He didn't have to break a sweat; Denver was dying to adulate him.
Lewis sings two songs in the show and does a few minutes of standup in the middle of the second act. On opening night he tried to throw a cane in the air and then catch it underhand, but he dropped it and was thrown another from the wings--again and again. His mistakes were all part of the joke. The crowd loved him as much for failing as it did when he finally succeeded in catching it. The Disorderly Orderly even got away with a Polish joke. Celebrity is indeed a wondrous phenomenon--and, surely, its own reward.
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For those who may have only a dim recollection of the story, Damn Yankees concerns one man's desire to save his favorite team, the Washington Senators. But the Yankees' diabolical winning streak and their hellish ability to intimidate the Washington team keeps the good guys down. So our hero, Joe Hardy, sells his soul to the Devil for a chance to win the pennant and send the club he's loved his whole life to the World Series. Transformed by Lucifer into a franchise-carrying young slugger who hits every ball thrown at him, Joe discovers that he's never stopped loving the wife he left behind--and remains faithful to her even when the Devil offers him the many charms of Lola, his henchtart.
Old Joe is played with ingratiating goodwill by Dennis Kelly, while the role of Young Joe belongs to the ravishing David Elder, who looks and moves like a Greek god. But the best of the show belongs to Lola, and Valerie Wright is the right woman for the job. She creates sympathetic magic whenever she appears on stage--the most exquisite vamp since Dietrich. Her dancing is skilled, joyful and effortless, all energy and feathery delight. Her voice is good but her delivery is better, and her "Whatever Lola Wants, Lola Gets" routine is the high point of the evening.
Wright is backed up by a snappy team of dancers, whose sassy choreography incorporates athletic tumbles and baseball routines (slides, catches, swings of the bat and complicated pitching rituals). These boys of summer make quite an engaging vision.
Lewis, meanwhile, slips through his routines silkily. He's not so much working as reliving his youth; he's not so much acting as showing off to a new audience the old magnetism he once generated with Martin. The sentiments of the show are cheesy enough to spread on toast, but then, it's not really about theater. It's about celebrity--and, of course, nostalgia for a simpler, more comforting past.