M hat do you get when you cross the devil with Major League Baseball? No, not George Steinbrenner or Rafael Palmiero, but the bubbly 1955 musical “Damn Yankees,” which under the direction of Arena Stage Artistic Director Molly Smith is an exuberant throwback to when baseball meant team loyalty and spirit. No booze, no scandal, no steroids.
Based on the Douglass Wallop novel “The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant,” the musical “Damn Yankees” combines a Faustian tale with an unabashed love of the game.
Chevy Chase resident Joe Boyd (Lawrence Redmond) lives for the baseball season, condemning his sweetly resigned wife Meg (Kay Walbye) to sports widowhood — a condition detailed in the number “Six Months Out of Every Year,” a zany sendup of ‘50s conventions with the housewives in hostess aprons and Donna Reed dresses swirling and kvetching while their husbands execute an intimate pas de deux with a phalanx of brightly colored retro TV sets.
Joe would do anything to see his lamentable Washington Senators cream the Yankees. Enter the gregarious, glad-handing demon, Mr. Applegate (Brad Oscar, fresh from Broadway as Max Bialystock in “The Producers”).
For the measly price of a soul, Mr. Applegate transforms saggy Joe Boyd into hunky Joe Hardy (Matt Bogart), a younger, fitter version of himself who is a powerhouse on the baseball diamond and a boy scout everywhere else. Further mischief arrives in the curvy form of Lola (Meg Gillentine), a devil’s minion with a minxish , perky style that suggests a PG-13 version of Mitzi Gaynor.
You need to throw in a lot of color; vigorous, no-holds-barred choreography (by Baayork Lee); and high-spirited singing to overcome the shortcomings of “Damn Yankees,” which has a handful of memorable Richard Adler and Jerry Ross songs — “You Gotta Have Heart,” “Whatever Lola Wants” and “A Man Doesn’t Know” — that are subject to many reprises.
One song, the exalted hoedown “Shoeless Joe From Hannibal, Mo.,” is brought back for an encore when you’ve barely had time to clap for the first go-around. Also, as engaging and infectious as “Heart” is, do we really need to hear it four times in one night? Another standout is “Near to You,” sung with exquisite tenderness and longing by Miss Walbye, Mr. Redmond and Mr. Bogart, although much of the music contains cheesy strains of warmed-over ‘50s-style jazz forms.
It also is difficult to stomach the portrayal of the women, who put up with behavior from the menfolk that the likes of Jose Canseco might deem over the top. Joe Boyd not only disappears from the house without a phone call or a note, he also pays tribute to his loving wife in a song titled “Goodbye Old Girl” as if she were a mare recently put out to pasture.
The female sports reporter, Gloria (Cindy Marchionda), is reprimanded by the team manager, Van Buren (Michael L. Forrest), for her nosing around, and his biggest stab to her ego is the line, “Why don’t you go get married?”
Miss Walbye brings gravity and poignancy to the role of Meg, but her friends and the other Washington women are alarmingly cartoonish.
Still, if you are willing to put on blind ers, “Damn Yankees” can be terrific fun. Musical Director George Fulginiti-Shakar’s orchestrations bring out the mock exoticisms of the bossa-nova- and samba-inspired score without overdoing it, and set designer Rachel Hauck conjures the hot-pink-and-turquoise world of the mid-‘50s in architectural details that evoke the giddiest motel decor of that era.
The ensemble is in superb form, with the baseball players executing pitch-perfect three- and four-part harmonies in “You Gotta Have Heart” and “The Game.”
Mr. Oscar does not produce the bombastic chills you would expect of a performer of his caliber, but his Mr. Applegate is a genial charmer in a loud jacket. The lithe and athletic Miss Gillentine makes a wonderfully sultry Lola, and the chemistry with the equally fine Mr. Bogart heats up in the teasing sexiness of their number “Two Lost Souls.” As the big-dreaming Joe Boyd, Mr. Redmond combines sensitive singing with an aching wistfulness.
For a musical about a rabid, middle-aged Washington Senators fan who sells his soul to the devil to get his team to win the pennant, “Damn Yankees” says an awful lot about innocence and a time in America when we thought the best of ourselves and the athletes we admired.
WHAT: “Damn Yankees,” words and music by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, book by George Abbott and Douglass Wallop
WHERE: Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. NW
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Through Feb. 5.
TICKETS: $49 to $68
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS