The Faust legend has been appropriated numerous times within theatre, but applying it to a musical comedy about baseball is perhaps a step too far.
This, however, is the plot of Abbott and Wallop's 1955 musical Damn Yankees, in which middle-aged baseball fan Joe Boyd sells his soul to the devil to become reincarnated as the younger, talented baseball player Joe Hardy. Thus he is tasked with helping his team, the Washington Senators, beat the pesky New York Yankees in the Major League before the end of the season, or risk losing his soul.
For a show about sport, you might be expecting a certain level of machismo, but this production of Damn Yankees is the opposite. This is an old fashioned musical, filled with high camp and cartoonish, pantomime acting, with a chorus line of semi-naked, towel-clad boys high kicking in the showers. The cast is led by Jonathan D’Ellis as Mr Applegate, a.k.a The Devil. The only thing devilish, though, is a kinky sense of humour. Instead, his constant camp shtick and (improvised?) jokes, performed with a knowing wink to the audience at all times, cheapen the show to a low rate cabaret. “That was worth the entry ticket alone” he quips after his big number in the second act. I think not.
Elsewhere there are some other standout performances for the right reasons: Alex Lodge sings with a gentle baritone as Joe Hardy; Poppy Tierney is thrilling as the Devil’s sexy assistant Lola; and Nova Skipp provides some grounded emotion as the elder Joe’s wife Meg.
What’s also frustrating is that much of the action occurs off-stage. Admittedly, a baseball pitch is difficult to replicate in a small theatre, but with the cast constantly running off into the wings and frequent, jarring blackouts, the story becomes convoluted and the pacing disjointed.
The production is at its best with the sizeable ensemble cast singing some inoffensive, jaunty tunes with energetic dancing. The young cast (predominantly recent graduates) are thoroughly exciting to watch and perform Robbie O’Reilly’s demanding choreography with seeming ease, combining pirouettes with bat swinging. This might score some points, but the production as a whole is far from a home run.
Watch: Damn Yankees runs at the Landor Theatre until 8th November.