We might as well call it Jerry Lewis' "Damn Yankees," given the
adoring reception the 69-year-old comedian got as he double-took and
soft-shoed his nimble way through the role of the Devil in the
revival now at the Ordway Music Theatre.
The show was written by George Abbott and Douglass Wallop, with
words and music by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross and direction by
Jack O'Brien. There also was a large group of other performers
playing other pertinent roles.
But when one of the characters is the Devil, you know where the
attention is going, and when that Devil is Lewis, past master of
"Hellzapoppin" stage business, you might as well throw in the towel
and turn center stage over to him.
Lewis has never been shy about taking it, and he does in this
show, though not at all as you might imagine. The fact is that the
1955 "Damn Yankees" is a B musical, and everyone save Lewis seems to
know it. Everyone pulls out the stops to make it go, creating big,
overdone characterizations at best, caricatures writ large at worst
- except Lewis. He knows he has the upper hand, the best lines, the
show's funniest song. He's the one gloriously nasty guy in a sea of
sappiness, and he doesn't need to push it.
Through 80 percent of the show he's the model of restraint,
snapping out his lines without pushing for laughs (his biggest one
is when he puts on a devilish sneer and says he hates charities),
taking the famous Lewis double take with quick, eye-flapping
subtlety. He's calm in a sea of overacting, and he stands out like
Pavarotti in a karaoke bar.
This is the punch the show needs. It's B material, but B
material with a goofy charm that more or less matches Lewis'.
He holds himself back until he finally gets his
show-stopper, "Those Were the Good Old Days," and O'Brien gives him
a clear run at it. Lewis pulls out all his Catskills comic past,
complete with a Devil red coat and cane. It's a great routine, and
he loves doing it, playing with the audience, smirking, scowling,
tossing in nasty little innuendoes and, for his real fans, pulling
out that big, brassy voice, which sounds like a really manic,
demented child demanding Ritalin.
It's a terrific moment, and by the time he gets to it, it fits
right in. He follows that with "Two Lost Souls," a superb duet with
the temptress-gone-nice Lola, and manages to expose a sweetness
beneath everything as well.
In any other situation, Lola, played by Valerie Wright, would
be the subject of high praise, and when Lewis isn't acting out, she
dominates. She's sensational, managing to be sexy and hilarious in
"Whatever Lola Wants" and "A Little Brains, a Little Talent," a rare
blend of performer, actress and comedian.
This devilish twosome controls the show and sends it spinning.
O'Brien has wisely kept it 1950s - lots of pink, charcoal and coral
- and he's done a fine rewriting job.
The story, about a Washington Senators baseball fan who sells
his soul to become Joe Hardy, a star capable of finally beating the
Senators' nemesis, the Yankees, is passably amusing and nothing
more. But O'Brien beefs up the part of Hardy's abandoned wife, and
he's added some nice touches to the locker-room and baseball-field
scenes (though Rob Marshall's choreography is only sporadically
successful). It doesn't groan as much as it might, and fairly zings
David Elder as Joe sings well and looks like a ballplayer, but
can't elevate the part past all-American wooden innocent. (I don't
think anyone can.) Amy Ryder has some great turns as Sister, and
everyone else is fine given the hyperkinetic style O'Brien uses,
perhaps as a way to deal with Lewis' natural hyperactivity.
Lewis surprises them, though, by being mostly quiet, taking the
focus by his calmness and then, when it counts, grabbing the stage
and wringing the life out of it. It's his show, and he earns it.
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