Thursday, April 19, 2012
Ball Play at HLOC
I review Humboldt Light Opera Company's production of Damn Yankees in the NC Journal, but because of my word limit there--including the previews of upcoming shows--I had to dump my opening paragraphs. But hey--I've got a blog! So here is the longer and possibly more self-indulgent version.
Walking home from Little League practice I would sometimes stop at the public library to select my three-book limit—usually science fiction (the Winston series) or sports biographies (Jackie Robinson) and sports novels, mostly by Joe Archibald and John R. Tunis, with titles like Young Razzle and The Kid Comes Back. A title outside the kids section once caught my eye: The Year The Yankees Lost the Pennant. I got the title’s meaning. It was the 1950s and with players like Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford, the Yankees always won the American League and usually the World Series.
My home team—the Pittsburgh Pirates—would soon be the little guys from nowhere that toppled the mighty Yankees in the real life 1960 World Series. (Okay, maybe Milwaukee did it a few years earlier.) But the novel was about a frustrated fan for the Washington Senators-- next to the Kansas City A’s (virtually a Yankee farm team) the most hapless American League team. That middle-aged fan named Joe Boyd makes a deal with the devil (who calls himself Mr. Applegate) to become the young home run hitter Joe Hardy, destined to elevate the Senators. His transformation (as I remember it) happened while he ran—he started with labored breath, slow, creaky and awkward, and felt himself become fleet and fluid and easy. It was my first scary lesson in the meaning of getting old.
Richard Adler and Jerry Ross (Pajama Game) added music to the story based on Douglas Wallop‘s novel for the Broadway musical Damn Yankees, which swept the major Tony Awards in 1956. This show (rather than the 1994 revival) seems the basis for the version now being performed by the Humboldt Light Opera Company at the College of the Redwoods Forum Theater in Eureka.
Once Applegate (played with suave irony and sonorous glee by Brad Curtis) gets Joe Hardy in his clutches (James Gadd, looking the part of the innocent baseball star) he moves to control him further with the professional temptress known as Lola. This showy role made Gwen Verdon a Broadway star. Verdon was a dancer who’d never sung a role before, and coincidentally that’s also true of HLOC’s Lola, Lela Annotto-Pemberton. Dancers must make every movement mean something, and Lela seems to bring that approach to Lola’s songs, particularly the first one (“A Little Brains, A Little Talent”), honing every phrase as she belts out one of the show’s highlights. She follows that with the song that emerged from this show: “Whatever Lola Wants (Lola Gets.)” Quite a debut.
Also debuting on a North Coast stage but with plenty of experience in New York and nationally-touring musicals is Melissa Trauth as Gloria, a tough sports reporter who can suddenly dance up a leggy storm. Besides her flashy solo, when she and Lela/Lola do a dancing duet it’s a sparkling Broadway moment.
The story involves Joe’s trials and his attempt to invoke his escape clause (a little Faust, a little Samson and Cinderella—this show’s got it all) but plot twists are less important than the quiet credibility brought to the central love story, which is perhaps surprisingly about the middle-aged couple. In this, Carol Escobar (as Joe’s wife Meg) is crucial, both with James Gadd and Robert Keiber as the elder Joe.
The singing by both male and female ensembles is another highlight: the fans (Patty Andreise, Jennifer Callen, Bonnie Cyr, Katherine Matheson, Mary Severdia, Alana McConnell and Liz Souza) and the team (Gino Bloomberg, Jesse Chaves, Dylan Karl, Rigel Schmitt, Andrew Sible, Levi Simmons, led by manager Bill Ryder, with Howard Lang and Ralph Nelson.) Rookie of the year honors go to young Jake Smith for especially fine singing.
Carol Ryder directs creatively and effectively as usual (she also designed the handsome modular set, built by technical director Peter Johnson.) Molly Severdia and piano accompanist Sharon Welton are musical directors, Melissa Trauth did choreography, Kevin Sharkey the costumes, Justin Takata the lighting. Not a big summer show or a great play but it’s fun: to miss Damn Yankees would be a damn shame. It plays weekends through April 28.