Theatre / Devil's tunes
Damn Yankees / Adelphi, London
Friday 06 June 1997
Having made a career out of being showbusiness's manic answer to the missing link, a bronzed, blazered Jerry Lewis strolls into Jack O'Brien's highly enjoyable revival and is so laid back, he's spread-eagled. We're talking Jack Benny rather than Jim Carrey, Lewis's heir. The star is playing the devil who enters into a Faustian pact with Joe Boyd (Dennis Kelly), a grey, paunchy estate agent and baseball nut: in return for his soul, Joe will be transformed into a youthful star-hitter who can lead his bungling local team to victory over the New York Yankees.
For much of the first half, you may feel that Lewis's contribution is more an extended personal appearance than a performance. The camp, relaxed drollery has its moments of genuine comedy ("I'm so angry I could split a hoof," he announces, peeved at the high principles of his victim; that line, hinting that here we have a Jewish devil, is typical of the tongue- in-cheek wit of the script). But the lazy assurance of this superannuated swinger of a Satan could be mistaken at times for the smugness of a star smoothly coasting on his legend.
The second half suggests, however, that this relaxed approach is a clever piece of calculation, for it makes it all the more elatingly hilarious when Lewis finally achieves escape/ velocity and goes into triumphant take-off in a 15-minute stand-up set that's cheekily wedged into the middle of his big number "Those Were the Good Old Days", milking maximum comedy from that old routine where the performer can catch canes thrown to him from the wings, but not the ones he tosses into the air. Lewis pretends to cover up for his incompetence with a string of blissfully, shamelessly ancient gags involving nuns, Jews, and Polish bobsleigh teams that quite rightly stops the show.
Lewis is only one of the many reasons for seeing this revival. Performed with a slam-bang professionalism, the production - with its spare, wittily nostalgic sets and its exuberantly comic choreography - makes the musical's point: that you can be knowing without being cynical. One of the baseball players' dances is a delicious parody of the Seven Brides for Seven Brothers style of choric virility, while the show's biggest number, "You gotta have heart/ All you really need is heart", manages to keep its sentiments intact, even while demonstrating that you need a great deal more than heart to sock across those climbing harmonies and that charmingly goofy naivete. The staging here even has the players gargling the tune as they take a shower.
The show is strongly cast. As Lola, the devil's sexy sidekick, April Nixon has, to quote the song, her aces in all the right places - notably her legs, which, in one cod-strip routine, achieve anatomical impossibilities, making Cyd Charisse's pins look a shade stunty and unadventurous. There are attractive, finely sung performances, too, from Ellen Grosso as a gutsy reporter, John-Michael Flate as the rejuvenated Joe and Joy Franz as the middle-aged wife he chooses - thanks to a convenient escape clause in the pact - to return to. Sentimental? Sure, but what the hell?: Damn Yankees is damn good.
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