There are two terrific musicals in town. Both concern "damn Yankees" and make effective use of large male singing choruses, but the two productions couldn't be more different in approach. Yet each, in its own way, delivers solid entertainment.
The St. Louis Black Repertory Company is concluding its season with the theater equivalent of a grand-slam home run. Damn Yankees! is crowd-pleasing fun, abetted by consistently strong voices and wonderful performances. But primarily the evening invigorates because it also surprises. Who would have thought this 49-year-old chestnut could seem so fresh and original?
The plot, of course, is a spoof of the Faust legend. In a moment of pique, aging baseball fan Joe Boyd (Eddie Webb) offers to sell his soul if only his beloved Washington Senators can beat the indomitable New York Yankees in the pennant race. All too soon the devil, who arrives in the form of a flashy huckster named Applegate (the cyclonic Keith Tyrone), transforms arthritic old Joe Boyd into athletic young Joe Hardy (Kelvin Roston, whose sincerity becomes the standard against which all the other hijinks play out).
Maybe the hapless Senators can't play baseball, but they can sure sing. Everyone onstage can sing. By evening's end, the entire cast has stepped up to the plate to perform the show's familiar anthem, "You've Got to Have Heart." One gospel reprise shakes the Grandel to its very rafters.
When Joe decides he wants out of the pact, Applegate calls in his voluptuous handmaiden Lola (Mckenzie Frye) to change our hero's mind. The moment the lithe, sensuous Frye saunters onstage, she claims it. This is one of those rare take-your-breath-away performances that people hear about but rarely get to witness. Most Lolas are attractive; some are even sexy. But Frye's sultry good looks are just the starting point. She also captures the role's varying degrees of humor (slapstick, satire, lampoon) and even its soft vulnerability.
Director Rajenda Maharaj's staging shows Frye off to savvy advantage. One also senses that he is an appreciative, supportive audience. His insightful, loving eye is constantly reinventing Damn Yankees! -- with Daryl Harris' outlandish costumes, for instance. According to his bio, Harris is writing a dissertation on Mardi Gras Indian costumes. That dissertation comes to hilarious life here with some of the most outlandish outfits since Carmen Miranda.
Despite the director's vast imagination, there are still a few worrisome moments. A couple of performances are over the top, and Applegate's surefire soft-shoe solo, "Those Were the Good Old Days," turns out to be less than surefire when delivered at rapid speed. But it's the scenic design that's most problematic. At one point the Black Rep had talked about relocating Damn Yankees! in the Negro Leagues; happily, that didn't happen. Information about the Negro Leagues is restricted to the theater lobby -- and, alas, to the set. Painted slogans such as FIGHT RACIAL AND RELIGIOUS HATE are jarringly incongruous in a production that's so celebratory.
But hey, this is an evening to savor, not nitpick. A little bit of brains and a lot of talent have served up an ebullient Damn Yankees! that's all heart.
There's nothing ingenious about the Stages St. Louis mounting of 1776, nor need there be. Stages is opening its new season with a faithful, respectful, no-frills re-creation of the original Broadway production.
When 1776 premiered in 1969, the prospects for a show containing nineteen character actors, only two women and no dancers were highly dubious. Yet 1776 defied the odds and became a long-running hit. Why? Because its account of the great debate surrounding the writing and ratification of the Declaration of Independence thrilled -- and continues to thrill -- audiences. For the most part, the show does an artful job of distilling history. Only in one glaring area did its creators (wisely) defer to myth: The evening concludes with a depiction of the delegates signing the document on July 4; in fact, the Declaration was signed over a period of months.
This Stages production finds its momentum in Alan Ball's impassioned performance as John Adams, the Yankee from Massachusetts who was the guiding spirit behind the Declaration. Ball's performance is uncannily similar to that of William Daniels, who so effectively portrayed Adams both on Broadway and on film. But Ball is not a mindless clone, emptily repeating Daniels' interpretation. He has absorbed Daniels' performance into his own being. Every line he utters is undergirded with conviction.
Several other actors deliver able performances. James Anthony strikes precisely the proper weary note as John Hancock, who presided over the Congress. Steve Isom is a smooth and appealing Edward Rutledge of South Carolina. Unfortunately, his stirring diatribe against New England hypocrisy, "Molasses to Rum," was all but drowned out by the prerecorded music. On the other hand, when the delegates unite in song, they create a robust, thrilling sound that overwhelms the prefab score.
Ultimately, though, 1776 is an oxymoronic musical in which the music is almost incidental. Here, the issues take center stage. More than 225 years after the original signing, it is still easy to become absorbed by this heated debate about America's future. When a line such as "I leave you a divided Delaware" can instill shivers, someone has done something very right.
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