Damn entertaining

Riverfront packs the house with its first-ever musical, Damn Yankees

Riverfront Theatre’s first-ever musical performance, <i>Damn Yankees</i>, was well-done.

Riverfront Theatre’s first-ever musical performance, Damn Yankees, was well-done.

Rated 4.0

While other local theater companies are making their mark with cutting-edge drama or wacky interpretations of Shakespeare, the Riverfront Theatre is packing the house in its debut season with tried-and-true crowd pleasers like Charley’s Aunt, The Glass Menagerie and its first-ever musical, Damn Yankees. It almost seems too easy.

Of course, it’s can’t be that easy, or everyone would do it. And unlike most companies, founder/director Bob Barsanti seems to have a bottomless pool of energetic young actors and techies; Damn Yankees pulls heavily from the ranks of both the Nevada Repertory Company and the Truckee Meadows Community College theater program.

The premise of Damn Yankees should be familiar to anyone who’s read Goethe’s Faust: Joe Boyd, a middle-aged man and baseball fanatic, makes a deal with the devil (known here as Mr. Applegate) to become a star athlete in exchange for his soul. Unlike Faust, Joe finagles himself an escape clause before he’s transformed into Joe Hardy, a 22-year-old sports superstar.

Though he’s lifted his team, the Washington Senators, out of the cellar and into contention for the pennant, Joe can’t keep his mind off his wife, Meg. Mr. Applegate calls in his head minion and seductress extraordinaire, Lola, to distract Joe so he won’t exercise that escape clause and return to his wife.

The roles of Mr. Applegate and Lola are plum, and Rod Hearn and Karen Chandler are up to the task. While I’m a little tired of the characterization of bad guys as snotty with a hint of effeminacy, Hearn plays the evil bitch pretty well. His big solo number, “Those Were the Good Ol’ Days,” reeks with panache.

Chandler goes over the top as Lola—almost literally, as she struts around for most of the show in a tight little bustier that threatens to burst open at any moment. It’s nothing your kids haven’t seen on TV, but the pre-teen boy sitting next to me, who was watching the show with his mom, kept squirming in embarrassment. It was cute.

As far as Chandler’s theatrical assets go, she’s got the vocal range and power to handle all of Lola’s songs, and the dance moves to back them up. She’s also a gifted comedienne, reminding me of the multi-faceted performance of Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl.

Cheryl Anselmo kicked some butt as reporter Gloria Thorpe, out-singing most of the other leads. But as far as I’m concerned, the dance corps was the real star of the show—especially the men doubling as Joe’s teammates. Choreographer Art Anderson made every moment these guys were on stage look good.

John L. Curtis’ performance as Joe Hardy was fine, but the role itself is rather boring. (The good guys are rarely interesting.) The role of Joe Boyd, played by Kevin Karp, is just as boring, and Karp’s singing voice is a tad nasally for my taste. Cathy Gabrielli, playing Meg, had a wobbly soprano voice that became a little grating after a while. Perhaps the main issue I have with these three roles is that they often interact on stage, repeatedly singing what has to be the dullest, slowest song in the show.

But despite a few weaknesses, I left the show with a smile on my face and a tune on my lips. And while I prefer a little more edge to my theater, the Riverfront has managed to make this old standby fresh and fun.