DAMN YANKEES AT ENCORES!
The Encores! production of Damn Yankees won me over on Wednesday night, though I can understand the mixed reviews that have been coming in. The company's take on the baseball-fan-meets-Faust fantasy could certainly use some more zing (surprising, considering that the director is John Rando) and, perhaps, a little less fealty regarding Bob Fosse's original choreography. The first act in particular came across as too deliberate and episodic, but the proceedings gained vitality in a second act rally and ultimately proved very satisfactory. The production runs through July 27, so perhaps it will catch the attention of the All-Star crowd that will be in town around July 15.
The most pleasant surprise for me was the performance of Sean Hayes (Will and Grace's Jack) in the role of the devilish Mr. Applegate. He brought wit, vitality, and genuine laughs to the role and showed that he could command the audience's attention during his big second-act number "Those Were the Good Old Days."
This production may be most significant as Hayes's New York theater debut, but many will also remember it for the presence of charismatic Cheyenne Jackson as the supernaturally youthful baseball player Joe. Last year's summer Encores! production of Gypsy featured a mini-flock of female strippers, but this summer it's time for beefcake in the form of Jackson. When he disrobed in one already notorious scene, the, um, appreciative comments in the Rear Mezzanine made the City Center seem like another kind of strip joint.
The multi-talented Jane Krakowski—a favorite of Blog About Town—played the temptress Lola well, but she might not have been well-served by the decision to emulate Bob Fosse's original choreography for Gwen Verdon's Lola. I haven't yet been won over by the steps for Verdon in "Whatever Lola Wants," and Krakowski didn't persuade me either (although lots of attendees seemed to be charmed). I wonder what the scene would have been like had it been customized more for Krakowski—and I also wonder whether the goings on would have benefited from more reworking of the book. It might've been very funny, for example, to see something made of the recent gossip about A-Rod and Madonna.
What worked very well for me was Krakowski's dance with the ensemble in the second act's nightclub number "Two Lost Souls." I found more second-act magic in "Near to You," the poignant duet between Jackson's Joe and strong-voiced Randy Graff's Meg. Somewhere in there was a wonderful segue between scenes and a "Limbo" set that reminded me of the design in the giddy animated series God, The Devil and Bob. Veanne Cox was strong as the comical character Sister, and Megan Lawrence skillfully evoked some Megan Mullally vibes in her scenes with Hayes. The dancer John Selya did very good work with his Fosse moves. Kudos also for the lighting and color design.
ADDENDUM Almost forgot to mention that the Rear Mezzanine at City Center remains one of the most problematic sections in all New York City venues. The rake and seat placement is so poor that those in the section run the risk of spending performances swaying this way and that, in search of decent viewing angles. This creates a kind of domino effect, as anyone behind one of the swayers is likely to end up swaying too, to compensate. And so on and so forth. Compounding the problem is City Center's reluctance to open up the seats on the level(s) above the rear mezzanine to give budget-conscious fans more of an option. I happened to luck out with a good angle this time around, but one of our party relocated rather than sit behind a swayer. Something should be done!
Here's Gwen Verdon in Damn Yankees.