Perhaps we should expect lightning to strike when the Devil is nearby. So it was serendipitous that the sky over Forest Park crackled with lightning throughout the opening-night performance of Damn Yankees, the Tony Award-winning Best Musical spoof of the Faust legend. When Damn Yankees debuted in 1955, the seemingly invincible New York Yankees had just completed a five-year streak of World Series wins (with more than a dozen pennant wins prior to that). So the notion that a rabid Yankees hater might sell his soul to the Devil to put the kibosh on that record probably didn't seem all that farfetched. If today the show feels a bit creaky, think of it instead as merely quaint. From that more roseate perspective, this week's Muny production provides an evening of innocuous fun.
The Devil, here known as Mr. Applegate, offers aging Joe Boyd (Walter Charles, in splendid voice) an enticing deal. He is transformed into Joe Hardy, a mysterious 25-year-old slugger who joins the misbegotten Washington Senators. (The real-world Senators later lit out for Minnesota; their short-lived eponymous D.C. replacements are now the Texas Rangers.) But Joe is as old-fashioned as the show he inhabits; he wants to return home. Applegate prefers to send him to Hell.
While these two are resolving their differences, we can have a jolly time listening to spirited songs like the uplifting "You've Got to Have Heart." And who better to lead that anthem than Lee Roy Reams, who is all heart? Choreographer Mary MacLeod, who according to the playbill is reproducing Bob Fosse's original Broadway choreography, has an inventive good time with bats and balls in "Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, Mo" (brightly trumpeted by Leslie Kritzer). MacLeod transforms the sultry "Two Lost Souls" into a calculated frenzy. If the number also feels reminiscent of "Hernando's Hideaway" in The Pajama Game, that's only because the two musicals were written back-to-back by the same composers, Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, and both were choreographed by Fosse.
Eric Kunze brings a winning personality to Joe Hardy. Although it's rare to see Kunze in anything at the Muny that doesn't involve capes, he has never been more appealing than he is here. Angie L. Schworer, who was memorable as the sexpot secretary Ulla two summers ago in the Muny's Producers, wisely does not try to duplicate that performance as Lola, the Devil's provocative henchwoman. Schworer instead is a surprisingly vulnerable and tender Lola.
But mostly this Damn Yankees is about Lewis J. Stadlen, who delivers a crisp, calibrated portrayal as the Devil. He begins economically, almost understatedly, and then cunningly builds his brio through the night. A master of timing, Stadlen sprinkles every line with a dash of tart irony. By the time he cuts loose in his Act Two tribute to vaudeville, "Those Were the Good Old Days," it's as if Joe Hardy is not conquest enough: Stadlen is also out to seduce the audience. By song's end he is having such a devilish good time, it's all he can do to keep from dropping to one knee and going into a chorus of "Swanee." This is star-turn stuff, but Stadlen understands that a smile is more seductive than a shout. He remains disciplined to the end.
The harmless evening, which has been directed unobtrusively by Paul Blake, runs less than two and a half hours. If it still feels too long, we should recall that the 1950s was an era when musical reprises were the norm, regardless of whether they were needed. Speaking of unnecessary, someday someone will have the guts to excise that pointless mambo number at the end of Act One, but even with it, the show is more entertaining than not. And when the Senators don't blow their climactic game in the ninth inning, you have to wonder how many diehard Cardinal fans would sell their souls for that kind of assurance. Maybe the underlying premise of Damn Yankees is not so fantastical a pipe dream as it purports to be.