If hell were a musical

Faint praise isn't damnation enough for Damn Yankees

There's good news and bad news from the Great White Way. The good news is that, after years of premature closings, skyrocketing ticket prices, and dismal press, Broadway is enjoying its best season in years. The massive crossover success of Bring In Da Noise, Bring In Da Funk and the ubiquitous Rent have proven that new ideas and commercial appeal aren't the Brother Sun and Sister Moon of Broadway, condemned to separate lives though longing for one another anew with each big-budget gamble taken by producers.

The bad news is that multimillion-dollar revivals like A Funny Thing Happened On the Way To the Forum, video-to-stage translations like Big and Victor/Victoria, and bloated star vehicles like Damn Yankees have been Broadway's life-support system for so long, they're not likely to be switched off any time soon. Dr. Kevorkian, your tickets may be picked up at will-call 30 minutes before curtain.

A Faustian ode to marital love and sports fanaticism written in 1955, Damn Yankees opened its national tour in Dallas with a professionally executed, high-energy show that deserved a better script and a more resourceful star. Jerry Lewis plays Mr. Applegate, the devilish deal maker who turns a middle-age real-estate agent (Dennis Kelly) into the world's best ballplayer (David Elder) so the man's favorite team, the Washington Senators, can defeat the legendary New York Yankees. A flash of male nudity and references to J. Edgar Hoover's sexuality and the 1994 baseball strike serve as an "update" for a trifle whose calcified comedy would seem to make a rewrite, not just a revival, mandatory. Jerry Lewis' grave voice and stiff back only reinforce the impression that we are witnessing a revue by talented funeral-parlor employees.

Granted, one can hardly expect a 70-year-old man to maintain Savion Glover's pace, which probably explains why Lewis' two "big" numbers are buried after intermission (although the even older, eerily preserved Carol Channing rattled her dentures during every performance of the recent Hello Dolly! revival, according to most press reports). And there's only so much character nuance that can be wrung from the endless procession of devil and damnation puns in George Abbott and Douglas Wallop's book.

But all those factors don't explain the comatose delivery--the blank expression on Lewis' face as his fellow performers act and react with sweat-dripping conviction around him, or the edge of contempt which can't be explained away as being part of the Beelzebub persona. When Lewis walks into the suburban home of the protagonist's wife dressed as a fire inspector and asks, "Is this your house, LAAAAY-DEEEE?" in a gravelly imitation of his Cinderfella heyday, it's a lazy grab for a familiar laugh that the audience heartily supplies. It's amazing the state of denial a $50 ticket price can induce.

"Jerry Lewis is legitimate at last," crows Vincent Canby's oft-quoted New York Times blurb about Damn Yankees. No matter what you think of the comedian's goofball style, this statement is patently untrue and redolent of the self-delusional hubris that many New York critics have clung to pathetically through Broadway's lean years. As a writer-director on many of his own projects, major box-office draws of the '50s and '60s, acknowledged grandfatherly muse to Eddie Murphy and Jim Carrey and latter-day serious actor in haunting films like The King of Comedy and Funny Bones, Lewis hardly needs the Broadway imprimatur to polish his reputation.

Indeed, a vacuous boondoggle like Damn Yankees looks like a trip through the slums for Lewis--if only because it throws into harsh relief the cynicism behind big-budget New York City musical theater. In order to justify exorbitant ticket prices, a theatrical nonentity like Lewis is invited to stroll across the stage, pause long enough for one tepid hat-and-cane number, then exit with the wild applause of (mostly) rich people still ringing in his ears. Nobody works too hard, so everybody's happy.

As someone who didn't have to pay $50 for a ticket, I couldn't help but be amused by Lewis' vaguely hostile lethargy through three-quarters of Damn Yankees. Perhaps it's finally dawned on a man notorious for his dogged work ethic just how little he must do to create an entirely new career on Broadway. This production of Damn Yankees offends because of the conspicuous extremes at its core--so much money, so little thought.

God bless Gretchen Swen. Somebody has to--the woman doesn't possess a commercial bone in her body.

Since founding the nonprofit Extra Virgin Performance Cooperative four years ago, artistic director Swen has mounted 12 singular, visionary, if not always successful productions. Like Dallas' late, lamented Classic Theatre Company, Extra Virgin specializes in blowing the dust off the Dead White Males of World Theater by presenting their works in conjunction with original pieces that update the favorite themes of those literary forefathers.

All that would be simpatico with Dallas audiences if Swen were working summers in Samuell-Grand Park for the city's Zinfandel crowd, offering Shakespearean productions whose "updates" were polite but inane recostumings of the same old texts. But this 20-year theatrical veteran who, upon coming to Dallas nine years ago, studied and staged masterworks under Robert Corrigan at the University of Texas at Dallas, would much rather fiddle with the literature she so clearly loves. It takes a craftsman to mount a truly exciting classical production; nobody but an artist, however, would have the nerve to try and find herself in centuries-old plays. And artists sometimes make the mistake of confusing their own enthusiasm for a project with an audience's.

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