We've had a lot of little devils hoofing it on the Denver boards recently--Beethoven 'N' Pierrot, Lucifer Tonite and the Jerry Lewis rendition of Damn Yankees have come and gone from local theaters since December. Beethoven's devil was a sophisticated shape-shifter who never succeeded in seducing Beethoven into mediocrity. The title character in Lucifer was a master of sensual delights and convoluted reasoning who demonstrated, like C.S. Lewis's Screwtape, that most people would really rather go to hell. And Jerry Lewis's self-congratulatory performance in the Fifties baseball musical gave Old Nick a bad name--all that tired old shtick and self-adulation may point to an infernal worldview, but after a while, it's just a bore.
Fortunately, Lewis's mugging aside, Damn Yankees remains a lightweight charmer--and the production at Country Dinner Playhouse, though certainly not as slick or sexy as the Broadway road show, is actually more fun. An Arch Fiend for the whole family, Marcus Waterman plays the tricky Mr. Applegate with wit and panache. And you want to be up close when he pulls a lighted cigarette out of nowhere and produces an instant cane the same way.
The familiar story concerns a middle-aged Washington Senators fan who just wants to see his favorite team win the pennant once before he dies. In a fit of exasperation one night, Joe Boyd offers up his soul to the Devil for the opportunity to help the Senators--and in a flash of fire and smoke, the Adversary is there to take him up on his offer. But Joe is an experienced real estate agent and argues the Devil into an escape clause. The Devil, an egotist who underestimates Joe, transforms him into a dashing young athlete, Joe Hardy, and helps him get a tryout with the Senators. In one of the best bits of the whole evening, an unseen Joe "hits" ball after ball off-stage as the team and its manager, Van Buren, watch those high homers fly over the "garden wall."
A bright reporter soon figures out that there's something more remarkable about Joe than his batting style, and she begins to search for his past--a past, of course, that doesn't really exist. Meanwhile, Joe gets lonesome for his wife and his home. He's an average bloke with a good heart, and despite the temptations of the lovely Lola, Applegate's chief tantalizing tart, he remains faithful to his "old girl."
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It doesn't take a divining rod to locate the ending in this piece--it's all formula, and everyone knows what will happen. All of the characters are caricatures, though the Prince of Darkness is by far the most interesting of the cartoons. Keith Rice brings a strong voice, good presence and a touch of innocence to young Joe. Heidi Morrow uses her unusual voice in wonderful ways as the slinky Lola, sometimes belting it out like a jazz singer and sometimes heaving it up into her nose for a Latin-vamp effect. Unlike the way the part is handled in most Damn productions, Morrow's interpretation is more comic than it is sexual--this is a family show, remember, and though the role is still brash, it's not threatening.
George McKelvey as old Joe is impish and sweet. Dena Olstad-Rice's excellent voice gets restricted play as Joe's wife, Meg, and her performance is too squeaky and contrived. Ron Henry gives the team manager some authentic style--he used to play baseball, and you can tell. He makes a small role shine with a little careful, naturalistic layering and provides a glowing moment when he and the boys on the team sing "(You Gotta Have) Heart."
But then, all those great old show tunes like "Whatever Lola Wants, Lola Gets" and "A Man Doesn't Know" still sparkle under bright lights--despite changing mores and everything a recent spate of Andrew Lloyd Webber knockoffs have done to remove melody from musical theater.--Mason
Damn Yankees, through June 23 at the Country Dinner Playhouse, 6875 South Clinton Street, 799-1410.