Review: Opera Theater scores majorly with ‘Damn Yankees’ switchup
You may have seen “Damn Yankees” before.
Since its 1955 Broadway debut, it has become a high-school musical staple, a 1958 movie and a 1995 Broadway revival. Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera has done it three times.
But it’s highly likely you’ve never seen a “Damn Yankees” like the one by Opera Theater of Pittsburgh.
The story is a Faustian fantasy about a fan of the hapless Washington Senators baseball team who trades his soul to the Devil in exchange for a winning season that will help the team overcome its long-time foe, the New York Yankees.
Middle-aged, ex-sandlot player Joe Boyd grabs the opportunity to become the youthful player Joe Hardy who turns the team around and heads it for the pennant. The Mysterious Mr. Applegate gives him an escape clause.
Opera Theater and director Scott Wise put an unexpected spin on this venerable musical with an almost-entirely cross-gendered cast. Women play all of the male roles and all but one of the female roles are played by men.
The sole exception is female sportswriter Gloria Thorpe, who is played with aplomb by Katie Manukyan.
Opera Theater’s productions generally lavish attention and effort on the musical aspect of a work, and this “Damn Yankees” is no exception.
Once you overcome the initial puzzlement of the cross-gendered performers, it becomes an interesting exercise in hearing familiar tunes sung by fresh voices.
Richard Adler and Jerry Ross’ score gave us peppy chorus numbers such as “(You’ve Gotta Have) Heart” and “Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, Mo.,” which are led by Kelly Kimball as team manager Van Buren.
“Goodbye, Old Girl,” sung by Desiree Soteres as Joe Boyd and the duets “Near to You” and “A Man Doesn’t Know,” in which Rachel Eve Holmes’ Joe Hardy pairs with Benjamin Robinson as Meg Hardy, remain soulfully tuneful while the cross-gendering adds interest.
Patrick Shelton undertakes Lola, Applegate’s seductive assistant, memorably played by Gwen Verdon in the Broadway original and movie. He’s more playful than a sensual enticer. But Shelton offers a rich, dynamic performance of “Whatever Lola Wants” and pairs nicely with Holmes on “Two Lost Souls.”
For the most part, performers relax into their new gender roles as the show progresses.
But attention is first and foremost on the voices, which often exceed expectations — notably, Julia Fox as Applegate delivering “Those Were the Good Old Days.”
The show is produced in the carpeted Beaux Arts Ballroom of th e Twentieth Century Club in Oakland, with the audience seated along three sides and a small-but-powerful orchestra partially hidden by screens behind the playing area.
Set pieces, choreography and costuming are kept to a minimum. The cast is dressed uniformly in black tops, denim pants and black tennis shoes, accessorized with purses, hats and jackets.
It’s an entertaining performance that offers an opportunity to experience the familiar from an uncommon and unexpected perspective.
Opera Theater of Pittsburgh’s “Damn Yankees” will run in the Beaux Arts Ballroom, Twentieth Century Club, 4201 Bigelow Blvd., Oakland at 7:30 p.m. July 16 and 17 and 2 p.m. July 25 and Aug. 1. Admission is $25 to $65. Details: 412-326-9687 or otsummerfest.org