Theatre; Damn Yankees Bridewell, London

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The Independent Culture
You have to hand it to them. In 1954, the idea of crossing the Faust legend with baseball and turning it into a musical was, shall we say, off-beat. Wall-to-wall laughs are not exactly a feature of the Faust operas, so to wind up with a smash hit musical comedy was quite an achievement. The Pajama Game team of director/ writer George Abbott and composer/ lyricists Richard Adler and Jerry Ross took The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant, a baseball novel by the aptly named Douglass Wallop, and the rest is Broadway history.

Joe Boyd is a married, middle-aged baseball fanatic who one day discovers "Mr Applegate" in his living room offering him the chance to lead the Washington Senators, his lousy local team, to victory in return for his soul. And lo, in the middle of his first song, he loses 30 years and becomes sensational slugger Joe Hardy. As far as the Senators are concerned, young Joe comes "upon the scene/ as fresh as Listerine". And as played by fresh- faced Daniel Brown, he's just that. The Senators soar off to success but the devil ain't happy. Hell, Joe even takes a room in the house of his abandoned wife who doesn't recognise him. So our smooth-talking devil calls for shapely assistance from his favourite home-wrecker.

When the original opened, Gwen Verdon as the temptress stole the notices, but she had Bob Fosse's knock 'em dead choreography. Here, Liz Izen works every trick in her repertoire, attempting to seduce our hero right there in the locker room. She's sharp and funny, but the choreography never lets her rip. It's a bit like getting Jane Asher in to bake your cakes and then forgetting to give her any flour. Choreography isn't just an add-on in this show. There are moments and entire scenes that only work because of it. There's enough energy to kick the company hoe-down number "Shoeless Joe from Hannibal Mo" into life, but too much of the musical staging is shapeless and goes nowhere.

The good stuff in the score is terrific. The big number, the coach's pep talk, "You Gotta Have Heart", with its flying harmonies, is so good that you actually welcome its reappearance (you'd even cheer if the reprise were staged with more zip). There are some strong performances in key roles - Jill Martin turns the dull part of Joe's wife into a class act - and then fills the stage of the wonderful Bridewell Theatre with extra amateurs, but too often Carol Metcalfe's hopeful, tiny budget production resorts to dated musical comedy acting.

There are two big bonuses. No money means no amplification. The result? Everyone sings their hearts out, which makes up for a hell of a lot. The recent Broadway revival had so much money lavished on it, the devil was upstaged by the production. Here the marvellously serpent-like Peter Gale literally rises up from nowhere to dominate the show. Which is just as it should be. He always did have the best tunes.

n To 3 Feb. Booking: 0171-936 3456

DAVID BENEDICT

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