Play review: Satan takes the field in Light Opera Works’ ‘Damn Yankees’

Kirk Swenk (left) and Rudy Hogenmiller in Light Opera Works'
Kirk Swenk (left) and Rudy Hogenmiller in Light Opera Works' "Damn Yankees. | Photo by Chris Ocken

The devil is a fast talking wise-guy named Mr. Applegate in Adler and Ross’ 1955 Broadway musical “Damn Yankees,” now being staged by Light Opera Works at Cahn Auditorium in Evanston through June 15.

In the role of the demonic baseball agent is no less than Light Opera Work’s artistic director Rudy Hogenmiller, who after his star turn last season as the Emcee in the company’s production of “Cabaret,” hits a grand slam as a Mephistopheles from the Damon Runyon playbook.

He has the best lines and the best clothes — a sartorial sharpie — if you like the color red.

Hogenmiller leads a strong cast that includes Kirk Swenk as Joe Boyd, rabid middle-aged Washington Senators fan. Joe makes a deal with Mr. Applegate. After Joe passes on, Applegate promises, he will return as a 22-year-old slugger to lead the perpetually losing Senators to win the American League pennant by finally beating the perennially triumphant New York Yankees.

Boyd, however, is a real estate agent, and manages to secure an escape clause.

Enter young Joe, renamed Joe Hardy, played by Brian Acker, who is a great singer and portrays the fledgling baseball hero with the sincerity the role requires. Problems arise because Joe still loves the wife he left behind, but manfully resists the gorgeous temptress Lola, whom Applegate calls “the best home-wrecker on my staff.”

Lola is Erica Evans, a electric femme fatale, long-legged and curvy, with a strong voice and comic timing to spare. Another sparkler in the show is Jenny Lamb, who was Light Opera Works’ Sally Bowles last season, now playing sassy sports reporter Gloria Thorpe. She covers all the bases, singing, dancing and acting, plus captures the spunk of early female sports writers who dared to demand post-game access to the locker room.

And we’ve got to love Rick Rapp as Van Buren, the manager of the Senators, who leads his team in “Heart,” the show’s biggest hit. By the way, don’t be put off by all the skinny little guys on the baseball team. These fellows are the dancers and give us some of the best moments in the show, including “The Game,” the hilarious song of temptation resisted.

Meg Boyd, the wife left behind when Joe departs, is rather like a utility infielder, but Judy Knudtson handles the part gracefully. She shows her spirit in the opening number “Six Months Out of Every Year” when she laments her husband’s obsession for the national sport.

That number, with several wives arriving in house dresses and aprons as their husbands gather around the television set to watch the game, is one of the few moments when the show demonstrates its age. That and Joe’s reference to his wife as “old girl.” I doubt a husband would dare say that aloud today.

In the spirit of the great American obsession, the show opens with the shout “Play ball,” and Roger L. Bingaman conducts the fine pit orchestra wearing a red baseball cap bearing a white letter W.“Damn Yankees” is an old-fashioned, but durable Broadway comedy packed with rousing song and dance numbers and concluding with the triumph of true love.

Yet with all that cheerfulness, some of the best moments (truly) go to the devil. Applegate’s singing and dancing tour de force, “Those Were the Good Old Days” is a highlight of the production. He fondly remembers Jack the Ripper, the Plague, the Hundred Years War and other catastrophes, then coyly asks “Is anybody happy?” Thanks again, Rudy.

You’re batting a thousand.

‘Damn Yankees’

Light Opera Works, Cahn Auditorium, 600 Emerson St., Evanston

Performances June 8, 11 13, 14, 15

Tickets start at $34

Tickets and information at (847) 920-5360 or visit www.LightOperaWorks.com

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