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The Washington Senators Score in DAMN YANKEES at Paper Mill

DAMN YANKEES at Paper Mill (Photo: Ken Jacques)

As if theater-loving residents of N.Y.C. don’t have enough shows on and off Broadway to keep them entertained, there’s a theater in nearby Millburn, New Jersey that has been a popular audience destination since 1938. The Paper Mill Playhouse can always be counted on to present top-shelf productions of beloved musicals and plays in its Broadway-size venue. Currently, Paper Mill is fielding an excellent revival of the beloved musical Damn Yankees (and I promise to stop right there with the baseball puns).

This show has been a hit (that’s not a baseball pun!) ever since it first opened on Broadway in 1955, with a terrific score by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross and a well-nigh perfect book by George Abbott and Douglass Wallop. For the benefit of those who’ve never seen it, Damn Yankees is a clever update of the Faust legend. It tells the tale of Joe Boyd, a middle-aged fan of the Washington Senators (remember them?) who sells his soul to the devil (here, “Mr. Applegate”) in return for being magically transformed into Joe Hardy, a 22-year-old baseball phenom who hits better than Babe Ruth, pitches better than Dizzy Dean, and fields better than the combined forces of any team. The score includes the irresistibly infectious “(You Gotta Have) Heart” as well as such other gems as “Two Lost Souls,” “Whatever Lola Wants,” and “Those Were the Good Old Days.”

This is one of those shows that are so well constructed, they tend to go over well even in a so-so staging, provided that everyone involved trusts the material. And when the production is as strong as Paper Mill’s, a great time is assured.  As for trusting the material: I’m happy to report that DY is being presented here its original version. That’s one big reason why it’s superior to the 1994 Broadway “revisal,”  which had a few good ideas in it but was marred by several damaging alterations.

Directed by Mark S. Hoebee, Paper Mill’s Damn Yankees is so good overall that it easily weathers the miscasting of two talented performers in two of its three leading roles. Chryssie Whitehead was adorable as Kristine in the Broadway revival of A Chorus Line and wonderful as Kathy in the New York Philharmonic presentation of Company, but although she dances up a storm as Lola, she misses much of the character’s sexiness and humor.  As for the role of Applegate, it requires more of a character actor’s comic edge than is brought to it here by the leading-mannish, golden-voiced Howard McGillin.

But there’s no hint of miscasting in the gorgeously sung,  superbly well acted Joe Hardy of newcomer Christopher Charles Wood, whose striking good looks should further help him to establish a stellar musical theater career.  Other standouts in the company include that ball of fire Nancy Anderson as Gloria Thorpe, Ray DeMattis as Coach Van Buren, Joseph Kolinsky as Joe Boyd, and Patti Cohenour  in a heartfelt performance as Meg Boyd.

Denis Jones’ choreography is one of the production’s strongest assets, from the wittiness of “Six Months Out of Every Year” to the exuberance of “Heart” and “Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, Mo.” to the sexy moves in “Two Lost Souls.” The program credits Bruce Monroe with “new orchestrations and additional arrangements,” but they sure sounded like the fabulous originals to me. As is typical of Paper Mill, the show boasts Broadway-quality sets, lighting, and sound design by Rob Bissinger, Tom Sturge, and Randy Hansen (respectively). A special shout-out to Alejo Vietti for some fabulous costumes, especially the wildly colorful print-pattern house dresses worn by the women in the opening number.

Paper Mill’s Damn Yankees continues through April 1, and it’s well worth the trip to Millburn.