It’s a musical about baseball and a darn good one. It’s less frequently staged than some of its peers from the “Golden Age of Musicals,” but it has appeal similar to Guys and Dolls and The Pajama Game. In baseball-crazy Cincinnati, it pays to have heart — as the show’s best song, “You Gotta Have Heart,” expresses. That’s the feel-good appeal of Damn Yankees.
The story is set in the era when the New York Yankees routinely dominated the American League. Joe Boyd, a middle-aged real estate salesman and a fan of the hapless Washington Senators (which played in the nation’s capital until 1960), is so obsessed with his team’s lack of success that he swears he’d sell his soul for a long-ball slugger to give the team a championship season.
His exhortation is all it takes to conjure up Mr. Applegate, the Devil himself, who extends a Faustian bargain: He can become Joe Hardy, a studly young player who is just what the team needs to change its fortunes. It’s fun for a few weeks, but he’s still average-guy Joe Boyd in his heart and soul. Eventually he misses his devoted wife and his comfortable life in suburbia. Luckily he’s built an escape clause into his agreement.
It’s a silly, magical story, to be sure. But it’s told with such humor, colorful characters and a tuneful score that it’s just the kind of show that brings out audiences in force.
This production offers some special fun with local connections. Marty Brennaman provides some pre-recorded play-by-play for the Senators’ big game. And Pete Rose gives voice to the baseball commissioner (now there’s an ironic touch) who questions Joe’s honesty. Cincinnati Landmark’s longtime artistic director Tim Perrino is put into the role of middle-aged Boyd; Rodger Pille, a member of the company’s management team, brings the smarmy, manipulative Applegate to devious life, especially with “Those Were the Good Old Days.”
Perrino’s earnest number, “Goodbye, Old Girl,” provides a cover for his quick fog-bound change to the Senators’ savior, played by William Jackson, a handsome, big-voiced student from the musical theater program at University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music. He has the clean-cut, honest-guy stage presence that made audiences swoon back in the days when shows like Damn Yankees were hits, especially with the poignant number “A Man Doesn’t Know.”
Damn Yankees has three juicy roles for women. As Meg Boyd, Joe’s steadfast wife, Michelle Wells is pitch-perfect, plain and devoted — even if she initially begrudges Joe’s obsession with baseball (“Six Months Out of Every Year”). Renee Stoltzfus plays perky, persistent sportswriter Gloria Thorpe, who wants to dig into Hardy’s undocumented past — she’s an athletic dancer (“Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, Mo.”) and renders Gloria well as a hard-working journalist.
The showiest role for a woman is that of Lola, played by Rachel Perin, the bewitching hussy (“A Little Brains, A Little Talent”) who Applegate conjures up to keep Joe preoccupied. Perin vamps her way through the show’s over-the-top distraction number, “Whatever Lola Wants,” and she makes a sweet transition from a cold-hearted minx to a woman touched by Joe’s devotion to Meg.
The six guys who constitute Joe’s baseball teammates — Stephen Welch, Drew Simendinger, Nick Godfrey, Chris Logan Carter, Cian Steele and Cameron Nalley — are a highly entertaining and energetic ensemble of singers and dancers, joined occasionally by Tyler Gau as the team’s coach.
Director Matthew Wilson might have spent some time with choreographer Kate Stark to trim several dance numbers (“Shoeless Joe,” “Who’s Got the Pain,” “Two Lost Souls”) that go on longer than necessary. But each contributes to the show’s high energy level. Damn Yankees is a home run, for sure.
DAMN YANKEES continues at Price Hill’s Warsaw Federal Incline Theater through June 18. Tickets/more info: cincinnatilandmarkproductions.com.