Back in a past life, when I was workshopping my own off-Broadway musical, we were all terrified of a particular New York Times critic who would sometimes start his reviews of musicals by saying he wasn't a fan of musicals. Some people just aren't, especially of the saccharine, cornball, song-and-dance staples. If that describes you, then stay the hell away from Damn Yankees at the 5th Avenue Theatre.
In fact, read no further. This show isn't for you.
But if you're one of those people who loves a good cornball musical full of vaudevillian gag lines and familiar, hummable classics like "Whatever Lola Wants" and "(You Gotta Have) Heart," you'd be hard-pressed to find a more likable production of Damn Yankees short of Broadway itself. It's just like the musical you might remember from high school, only with a talented cast.
Chryssie Whitehead cuts a striking figure as the temptress Lola, managing to be both seductive and adorable at the same time, while Christopher Charles Wood perfectly fits the part of the deal-with-the-devil baseball phenomenon who appears from nowhere to lead the beleaguered Washington Senators past those damn Yankees and win the pennant. The only weakness in the leads, as strong as they are, is that their voices don't blend well on their one duet, "Two Lost Souls." Wood has a more operatic voice, while Whitehead is a typical Broadway belter, and their different styles clash.
Hans Altweis gives a game performance as the devilish Mr. Applegate, hamming it up when called for (which is often), while Nancy Anderson was born to play the sassy lady-reporter Gloria. But like most 5th Avenue productions, Damn Yankees is at its best during the production numbers, where an ensemble gives full voice to some of Broadway's most memorable tunes. The dancing is sharp, the harmonies are crisp, and the sheer volume overcomes the spotty acoustics of the theater's amplification system, which sometimes renders solos too loud and unintelligible.
Mark Hoebee's direction is snappy, but extra credit goes to choreographer Denis Jones for making the most of his cast's unique talents—the one chorus member who can do backflips does backflips while Anderson displays her athleticism in "Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, MO" by cartwheeling across the stage and being tossed in the air.
It's not high art, but it's not supposed to be. It's the kind of show where you might find yourself unselfconsciously singing along to some of your favorite Broadway tunes—like that guy in the row behind me. It's Damn Yankees for chrissakes, and as long as you keep that in perspective, you'll have a damn good time.