Bats Out of Hell

Long before professional baseball became an event played between teams of ill-mannered millionaires, America's pastime served as a metaphor for life's ups and downs. Of course, that's when the contests were regularly attended by white-shirted, fedora-wearing spectators with a boyish devotion to the game. And it's that kind of unbridled optimism that lies at the heart of Richard Adler and Jerry Ross's 1955 Broadway musical Damn Yankees.

The brassy show, in which the Devil makes a Faustian bargain with a die-hard aficionado of the Washington Senators, is currently on stage at Boulder's Dinner Theatre. Under the direction of Michael Duran (who was a member of the touring production starring Jerry Lewis that played the Buell Theatre a couple of seasons back), the adequately staged effort makes for an entertaining evening. In fact, Duran's long association with the touring production pays off handsomely in a few of the show's song-and-dance routines, which Duran has also choreographed. Unfortunately, the same can't be said for Duran's handling of the dialogue, the essential spirit of which eludes an otherwise talented cast.

After a brief overture, the action begins with a peppy song, "Six Months Out of Every Year," in which five husbands and their wives champion and bemoan, respectively, the arrival of the baseball season. We're quickly introduced to sports widow Meg Boyd (Shelly Cox-Robie) and her husband, Joe Boyd (Wayne Kennedy). As Joe muses aloud concerning his beloved team's chances to beat the despised Yankees in the race for this year's American League pennant, Applegate (A.K. Klimpke) magically appears on stage to pitch an irresistible offer to Joe. In exchange for Joe's soul, Applegate (the Devil in disguise) promises to transform the forty-something former athlete into the young superstar that the Senators desperately need. After a millisecond of soul-searching, Joe agrees to the pact on the condition that the contract include an escape clause. Applegate reluctantly consents to this point, with the understanding that his disciple, now known as Joe Hardy (Kevin Keyes), will relinquish his soul at a specific, agreed-upon time. To that end, Applegate commands his voluptuous minion, Lola (Joanie Brosseau-Beyette), to seduce the handsome slugger, thereby keeping him in the Devil's clutches until his appointed witching hour.

To Duran's credit, his upbeat approach to songs such as the mambo dance number "Who's Got the Pain?" highlights the performers' formidable singing and dancing talents. True, the musical's signature song, "(Ya Gotta Have) Heart," starts on an emotional level more appropriate to its kick-line ending than to the Senators' search for a collective clue that should begin the tune. Nonetheless, each episode of cartoonish buffoonery on the part of the actors is a delight--especially when the entire company, clothed in the glittery splendor of Laurie LaMere Klapperich's costumes, frolics amid the bright hues of Donna Clement's artful set. And apart from the actors' clearly visible body-microphone cords (the bare-chested ballplayers even wear them into the shower), the special effects and pyrotechnics contribute to the atmosphere.

However, Duran's handling of his lead actors is sometimes off-base. In particular, Lola's seduction of Joe lacks mystery, owing mostly to Brosseau-Beyette's stripping down to the barest of essentials during Lola's first scene with Applegate. By the time she sings "Whatever Lola Wants (Lola Gets)" at the end of the first act, we've seen far more of Lola than Joe ever will. And though the alluring actress delivers the famous song with aplomb, the tension that should exist between Joe and Lola is diminished for audience members who've grown accustomed to seeing Lola give away her wares.

Kennedy and Cox-Robie are appealing enough as the couple caught in a mid-marriage slump (is that a Midwestern or mid-Atlantic accent that Cox-Robie employs for her Beltway housewife?). But Klimpke's Applegate more closely resembles a rock-ribbed IRS auditor than a mercu-rial huckster poised to strike. For instance, when one character snarls "For Crissakes!" behind Applegate's back, Klimpke permits the epithet (which should be a remark of some import to Satan) to pass without even turning toward the offending party, much less delivering a sly smile or wink in the direction of the audience.

And by the time we reach the end of this two-and-three-quarter-hour tale, our interest in following such two-dimensional characters wanes to the point that one wishes Duran had devoted as much time and attention to matters of plot as he evidently did to the music and the dance routines. What's more, this version of the story is chock-full of anachronisms (would a Fifties female cub reporter really bark out to a ballplayer that he has a "nice ass"?).

Cheapened theatrics notwithstanding, BDT's production is a mostly enjoyable affair. But as the final scene limps home, it seems apparent that everyone's interests would have been better served had Duran simply transformed Damn Yankees into a straightahead musical revue--and left the dialogue in the dugout.

Damn Yankees, through October 4 at Boulder's Dinner Theatre, 5501 Arapahoe Avenue, Boulder, 449-6000.

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Jim Lillie