Review: Damn Yankees (Landor Theatre) JohnnyFox October 8, 2014 Musicals, Reviews I haven’t seen Damn Yankees for twenty years. But when I was lucky enough to catch the 1993 Old Globe Theatre San Diego production which transferred to New York, it made a lasting impression – not just for the pretty remarkable performances of Victor Garber as the devilish Mr Applegate and Bebe (Lilith from ‘Frasier’) Neuwirth as his leggy sidekick Lola, but to learn how sad it was that Adler and Ross had written two stonking scores within a year of each other – The Pajama Game and Damn Yankees won the ‘Best Musical’ Tony for 1955 and 1956 – but that Jerry Ross’s death from leukaemia, while both shows were running on Broadway and aged only 29, meant they never became the new Rodgers and Hammerstein. Damn Yankees is the story of a diehard armchair baseball fan of the worst team in the league who trades his soul with the devil to become the young batsman who transforms its fortunes. A stalwart of US high school productions maybe it’s less well-aired over here because the rules of baseball are all but incomprehensible to Brits, although it’s curious we never developed a ‘football musical’ on the same scale. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s disappointing The Beautiful Game is really more about Ulster politics than the kickabout, although a new Howard Goodall-penned musical version of Bend It Like Beckham has just been announced for the Phoenix in 2015. And if I really was theatre’s Mystic Meg I’d say possibly with Richard Fleeshman. Possibly with Jamie Muscato. Rob McWhir’s consistently smart and sassy revival at the Landor is faithful to the spirit and the structure of the original, but it’s Robbie O’Reilly’s energized re-working of the Bob Fosse choreography which kicks everything up several gears and makes the show a hit. Mostly fresh-faced descamisados newly graduated from ArtsEd or Mountview, the baseball team instantly win your hearts with their close-harmony singing, appropriately enough including ‘You Gotta Have Heart’ which is as near a perfect ensemble number as you’ll see on the London fringe. It’s a man’s show as far as the leads are concerned: at only 21 Alex Lodge who I’d spotted as a student in Arts Ed’s brilliant The Music Man earlier this year now makes a confident professional debut as the diabolically-enhanced baseball star, blending puppy-eyed ‘aw shucks’ sweetness with elegant vocals and moves. Tony Stansfield as the coach and Gary Bland as Joe Boyd have total class too, but from his first appearance draped on a mantelpiece Jonathan D Ellis holds riotous court as the emissary from Hell, Mr Applegate. This is a part requiring tremendous stage presence and an ability to control an audience and he has it in spades, although it’s also a ‘John Lewis’ performance with the scenery Never Knowingly Underchewed – and he may need to resist the temptation to overdo the in-joke asides to friends in the audience if it’s to be the absolute tour de force it so nearly is already. The women fare less well. I have a soft spot for Nova Skipp, an actress fully deserving of West End leads here playing the quietly ignored Meg Boyd and bringing real quality to the gentle ballad ‘A Man Doesn’t Know’ but elsewhere it’s patchy: there is some terrible cartoon overacting in Meg’s women friends, and neither Elizabeth Futter as the feisty tomboy reporter and baseball fan, nor Poppy Tierney as Lola quite captures the essence of the piece. Lola is an extremely difficult role, being required to switch between numbers from camp soubrette to growling sexual vamp and written as a hideous combination of high kicks and high soprano. I almost didn’t need to check the programme to guess this show was yet another cast by Benjamin Newsome – the stock of talent he manages to unearth from drama schools never fails to delight.