ALBANY - Park Playhouse has, in recent years, earned a reputation for offering musicals that were a bit dark, kind-of daring and always entertaining. Works like “Ragtime,” “Chicago” and “Cabaret” built a reputation for Park Playhouse as the summer place to see challenging theater. Better yet, many seats are offered free of charge in the Washington Park outdoor space.
To honor its 30th anniversary season the company is going back to its roots and offering a traditional book musical; the 1955 Tony Award-winning musical “Damn Yankees”. It’s throw-back theater that offers a different set of challenges to an audience, as the show has an innocence and a style from the 1950s.
Wisely, the producers still include one important element that has made recent shows so popular. The dancing in “Damn Yankees” is fantastic. Choreographer Ashley-Simone Kirchner creates exciting, athletic numbers that are in equal part gymnastics as well as dance. The nine member ensemble representing the Washington Senators baseball team are dynamic, spellbinding and extremely talented. Their performances of numbers like “Heart,” ”Shoeless Joe From Hannibal Mo,” and “Who’s Got the Pain” are show-stopping.
There are also gentle dance numbers that add to the fun as well. The back to back “Those Were the Good Old Days” and “Two Lost Souls” add a needed punch to a rather punchless second act.
Which brings us to the problem of the evening. The story about an older man who sells his soul to the devil to be young and talented enough so he can lead his beloved Washington Senators to the pennant and defeat those ‘Damn Yankees’ is dated and naïve even when it’s charming.
Adding to the problem is that resident director Michael LoPorto sets a leisurely pace for Park Playhouse production. Two hours of this fragile story would be perfect. Two and a half hours bearable. But at three hours, the last 30 minutes becomes a chore.
Thankfully, most of the lead performances are engaging enough that we sustain our connections with the characters, even in the second act where the fabricated tensions are so unrealistic as to be silly.
In a delightful casting choice, the older Joe Hardy is played by Tim Nelson who played young Joe Hardy in the Playhouse’s 1995 production. His wife, Meg, is played by Sandy Bargman, who played the temptress Lola in that same production. The pair have a sincere chemistry that is sustained through the performance of Devin Cortez, who plays young Joe. Because Cortez makes the audience believe he is old Joe in a young body, his affection for Meg, and her for him, never seems creepy.
It helps that Cortez makes young Joe a humble, self-effacing person who seems a decent man and a loyal friend. He also has a terrific voice and good dance moves. His niceness might also explain the lack of sexual tension between him and Emma Pittman, who plays Lola. Another reason for the disconnect is that Pittman - who is beautiful, sings well and dances with style - plays Lola as the girl next door and it's tough to see someone so likeable as a sexual predator who is out to destroy Joe.
Kenny Wade Marshall is an unusual physical choice to play the traditionally smooth Applegate, aka the devil. Marshall’s fast-talking Nathan Lane approach makes for some good comic moments, but the portrayal falters as his angry moments seem cruel and nasty. The character works best when Applegate is devilish rather than demonic. In this era of #metoo, it is shocking to see Applegate give Lola a butt smack in a family-oriented show, and his constant drinking from a flask is overdone.
Other quibbles involve Meg’s 1940s hairstyle that is inappropriate for 1955, the use of a tv remote that hadn’t been invented, ballplayers drinking in the locker room, minor characters mugging, a team manager who relies on shouting and young Joe replaced in “Two Lost Souls” by Applegate.
But, even though the production is long and riddled with flaws, it is a piece of theater that offers many pleasures.
“Damn Yankees” continues Washington Park, Albany through July 28. Performances 8 p.m., Tuesdays-Saturdays. Hillside seating free. 518-434-0776