“I’d sell my soul to the devil for…” is a statement often uttered in jest but meant with such sincerity when trying to showcase how one’s want overreaches need. Thalian Association opened a delightfully devilish tale last weekend with “Damn Yankees,” which brings a Faustian twist to the game of baseball. It’s fun and carries enough of a message, that at any moment one would be safe to assume Rod Serling could step out from the shadows of the theatre’s wings. Though it’s not hitting a home run, the company certainly has stolen a few bases. The play is well-balanced across the board by the skills of its director, Debra Gillingham, and her team.
The portrait of a major-league sports fan, Joe Boyd (Michael Lauricella) is a man content to watch others live out his dreams: to be a baseball superstar, hero of the Washington Senators. He basically wants to be the big man he never was. What Joe is not content with is his place in life, lost in an aimless job and often overlooking his loving wife, Meg (Sarah Holcomb). He can be found six months out of the year washed up and wasting away, in front of the light of his TV screen, as he rants and raves at his failing team.
Boyd’s mundane life is thrown a curveball when the smooth-talking Mr. Applegate (Stuart Pike) comes along and makes Boyd an offer he can’t refuse: to become the baseball player he always wished to be. He will be transformed into Phenom Joe Hardy (Mathis Turner) and take the Senators to the World Series. The catch: He has to walk on his wife, at that moment… Oh, yeah, and it will cost him his very soul. But priorities, right? This is the World Series!
Before the start of the show the audience is led in a baseball game-inspired singing of the National Anthem. It is a nice touch and a great foundation to build the “spirit of the game.” Also it’s not normally a part of the show, so it adds a little something special to this run.
After the audience is adequately roused to root, root, root for the home team, they are met with Benedict Fancy’s scenic design. At first it appears quite simple, with just two standing walls wheeled in and out to form the Boyd’s home. A bland couch ties it together and the love which Holcomb fills this set with really makes it the home Joe is missing. The scope of Fancy’s work truly gets shown off when Joe Boyd’s life ends and Joe Hardy’s journey begins.
The full stadium of the Washington Senators is shown, from the crowd seating stands, to the players’ locker room, all the way to the parking lot where loyal fans gather to gossip and listen to games on the radio. Each location has its own small touches, and both build the play’s world, but also the sense of community the fans have for their team.
The speed at which all these sets and pieces move about impresses. More often than not, having an ever-changing set in a show this big could bring its pace to a standstill, yet the pieces flow with ease from spot to spot and never hinder the play’s flow. It’s a true sign of solid craftsmanship.
The costuming also shines, with the team’s uniforms having an authentic aesthetic. For a show surrounding baseball, it is a rather important detail to land. The designs that Jen Iapalucci have pulled together are really top-notch, but it’s the plain housewife dresses she clothes Holcomb’s Meg in that really grab the eye. They help build the time period in a small but enriching way.
One aspect wavering back and forth is the production’s choreography by Tim Mills. While it catches the audience’s attention, jumping around the stage in numbers like “Heart,” and any song featuring Lola, overall, it putters out toward the ending—much like a song that fades out, repeating a single lyric over and over ad nauseam. The cast is very strong, regardless, from the leading roles down to supporting roles and ensemble. Everyone seems like they’re simply having fun.
Michael Lauricella and Mathis Turner do a solid job shaping the two sides of the same character: Lauricella as Joe’s true self and Turner as his best self—or at least how Joe sees his best self. Though Lauricella doesn’t have much stage time, he does the most with what he does have. So, when teamed with Holcomb and the energized ensemble, they open the show with the fun number “Six Months,” showing a growing frustration between the genders over the season’s length. Turner bears the brunt of the weight of the role, and for the most part, he carries it well. Presenting Joe Hardy as the all-American kid who just wants to play ball, he gives off an eager genuineness to Hardy.
Making up the hellishly awesome demonic duo of the show, the audience is presented with a slick Mr. Applegate (Who is not the Devil. Narrator: He was totally the Devil) and his on-call succubus sidekick Lola (Sydney Jones). Pike is clearly having a hoot on stage as Applegate, ever the silver-tongued … well … devil. He bounds around the stage, resembling a demented Richard E. Grant, draped in a black suit with just the most-well planned-out accents of red. The bright socks were a small but perfect touch, and show off an air in which Applegate carries himself. His number “Good Old Days” is like a vaudevillian ode to enjoying life while doing the devil’s deeds.
Jones’ Lola is very well-balanced, from the glee she takes from her temptress work, to the cultivated care she ends up having for Joe. She brings a resounding confidence to the role and straight up attacks the choreography at every turn, owning and enticing the audience in her number “What Lola Wants.”
The production is chockful of great supporting parts, filled by actors who embody their roles so well. Jonathan Wallin’s Coach Van Buren is a warm and endearing curmudgeon, who leads “Heart” just as a coach should, encouraging while criticizing his team. Bringing with her a need to seek the truth, Hunter Wyatt gives a hardnose detective vibe to reporter Gloria Thorpe, who is trying to get to the bottom of who Joe Hardy is; she dominates the stage in the number “Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, Mo.” Karri Compton and Heather Lindquist-Bull stand out for all the best reasons, as a pair of baseball-loving sisters.
Even with all the showy performances on display, it’s Sarah Holcomb who walks away with the production. She adds such a kindness and strength to Meg, holding it together with grace after her husband cruelly abandons her. The cracks are clear but are not taking hold of her. She is a prime example of being a duck: calm and cool on the top of the water and kicking like hell to stay afloat below it. Her voice fills Thalian with such a loving pain in numbers like “A Man Doesn’t Know” and “Near to You.”
While the show’s runtime very much feels like it’s in a seventh-inning stretch, it only comes from issues with the script and not the pacing of the production itself. The plot is all but resolved by the end of the first act, and the show begins to drag only because the second act has nothing to really do but end the story. Still, it succeeds at bridging the gap between theatre and sport fans and just in time for baseball season, nonetheless.