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Yamn Dankees: VOB’s 20th Mainstage Production

Posted by on Friday, February 17, 2017 in Blog posts, Production Review, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

yamn dankeesWith about as much verve as the Washington Senators, Vanderbilt Off-Broadway (VOB) begins the spring semester with the Faustian baseball musical Damn Yankees. Many thought the show was an unusual pick for an organization like VOB, whose last mainstage productions included more contemporary pieces like Legally Blonde and The Addams Family. But director Hannah Lazarz’ and the Artistic Board’s vision for the production brings VOB into new territory while satisfying the need for joyful tomfoolery featured in more contemporary shows. VOB takes amusing music and lyrics (Richard Adler and Jerry Ross) and a nonsensical book (George Abbott and Douglas Wallop) from 1956, and presents a hilarious, theatrically sound production. As a run crew member coming into the last week of tech, I found that the show was not only polished, but particularly meaningful to this college theatre organization.

For VOB, the show provides a goofy framework for a group of theatre guys to transfer their friendships into the team dynamics of a baseball team. As I waited backstage to transition into the next scene, I mused about the team as the seven dwarves, with all their love and support going to Joe Hardy, their Snow White. Much like the dwarves, the baseball team is full of comic characters, led by their true blue coach Van Buren, whose solo in “Heart” is sung with a bright honesty by Cole Carlin. Smokey (played by Tom Driscoll) can’t solve simple crossword puzzle clues and takes long pauses for laughs, heightening the comedy. Rocky (Evan Lyons) steals the show with his outrageous exuberance for “The Game.” During this number, the actors so seamlessly become their characters that nearly every performance drew backstage actors to the wings to watch their friends be ridiculous.

Backstage, as opening night nears, actors and techies alike warm up by tossing various absurd versions of the musical’s title amongst themselves. “Yamn dankees, dank yammees, dank yams” and then a range of “Heart” puns spark uproarious laughter. Despite the number of times we all had to see it, the show’s entertainment value never faded for us. The run crew would get lost in the jokes, laughing at lines we’d heard dozens of times before, still giggling as we moved couches and love seats and locker rooms on and off the stage. Beyond just being entertained, I was sucked into the theatrical experience much like a normal audience member, except that my vantage point provided lovely view of the right sides of every body on stage.

The overarching, convoluted plot of the show follows Joe Boyd, the man who trades his soul to the devil to become Joe Hardy, a young baseball player. The show starts achingly slow, with a single voice— that of demure soprano Meg Boyd (Lindsey Mullen), Joe’s wife— and very little dancing. VOB’s production cannot rid itself of this soft start, despite the effort to do so with a pre-show of Joe Boyd (Sammy Lyons) watching the game on television. Lyons sinks into middle age with ease, becoming a frustrated middle aged man whose one obsession is sports. The character seems familiar; perhaps we all know someone like this–fathers, uncles, family friends. But as soon as the other couples emerge during “Six Months Out of Every Year,” a ripple of excitement went through me, though I couldn’t actually see the women dancing with husbands who weren’t fully present to them during baseball season. I hid behind a set piece on stage, dancing around to the music and making ridiculous faces at the other run crew members.

From there, the musical picks up, hitting the ball hard with the appearance of Mr. Applegate (Alex Schecter). As evident from the steadily building laughter in the audience, the slow dawn of finding out that Mr. Applegate is the Devil is an entire joke in itself. The clever lines and hints to his demonic character are topped only by the moment Joe Boyd emerges as a much younger Joe Hardy (Michael Maerlender), delivering the cheesiest line in the musical, perhaps cheesier than intended in 1956— “Wham!”

Maerlender’s eagerness fits the role, but though the voice which emerges from him sounds satisfyingly operatic, it seems like too much of a divergence from his youthful performance of the character. When Joe Hardy shows up on the Washington Senators’ scene, reporter Gloria Thorpe (Lindsey Swearingen) takes an interest in his origins. Swearingen is refreshing in her role as the only woman with any notable agency, throwing out sassy lines, flirting with the Coach, and coming up with an excellent nickname for Joe. But “Shoeless Joe” goes handily forgotten by every character for the duration of the musical, something the cast and crew still joked about on opening night.

Nearly every dance number in the show is a showstopper, from the exuberant “Shoeless Joe,” featuring eye-catching moves by featured dancers Emily Carskadden and Jess Powers, to the odd home-run of “Who’s Got the Pain,” with gorgeous lines and standout dancer Josh Golombek. Hannah Younker’s choreography always keeps the audience on their toes, with highlights including some fascinating moves on the floor by Lola (Megan Ward) and Joe Hardy. Ward steals the spotlight exactly when she’s supposed to, delivering a performance tightly integrated with her character.

Throughout the show, the lighting by Evan Blum slips by, artfully unnoticed, until its valuable role in many songs to heighten the action. In “Who’s Got the Pain,” the lighting weaves itself into the music, becoming another dancer on the stage.

In “Near to You,” director Hannah Lazarz’ decision to feature middle-aged Joe Boyd during one of young Joe Hardy’s songs to Meg turns the lyrics particularly apt (“For it’s just as though/He was standing as close as I”). The touch of old Joe’s mournful presence does more than cause tears in the eyes of many; his voice deepens the score with lovely harmonies.

As the musical heads toward its close, the plot seems to ramble, and many characters seem to lose sight of their own motivations. It was a constant question backstage, as Act 2 hit its climax; “Does anyone actually know what’s going on?” The answer: no. But for the VOB team, well aware they are dealing with the playwrights’ threadbare plot, the only solution was to give all the heart they had to their duties. From the point of view of a crew member, the result was an enthusiastically genuine show, causing us to murmur “awww” when Joe and Meg reunite. This ending asks all spectators, including those backstage, to consider blind forgiveness at the cost of justice for wrongdoing, but seems warmly unaware of its own question. It is only after the show, still smiling, that my friends in the audience— as well as the cast and crew— wonder to themselves about the aimless plot. Regardless, VOB’s fierce passion for theatre and each other centers in the bond of the Washington Senators, a hearty team with miles and miles of hope for their organization.

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