Yogi Berra, the Hall of Fame player-turned-manager who spent his career as one of the more loveable (and quotable) damn Yankees, once said, “Baseball is 90 percent mental—the other half is physical.” In the case of Missoula Children’s Theatre’s season finale production of the 50-year-old musical Damn Yankees, you could say “Theater is 90 percent atmosphere—the other half is talent.”
MCT’s Damn Yankees—the story of a fan who sells his soul to help his beloved team win the pennant—is, indeed, all about atmosphere. A musical theater performance? It’s there, somewhere in the background, and it’s a joy. But much like a real-life, modern-day baseball game, the main attraction is overshadowed (or is it enhanced?) by the relentlessly exuberant, family-friendly hubbub that occurs before, during and after the actual drama.
The audience’s role as participant is established from the moment you step into the theater. I sat in “centerfield.” Vendors walked up and down the aisles shilling Cracker Jacks, Pepsi, and cold Budweiser. Staff from the Missoula Osprey (a show sponsor) sold hotdogs in the lobby. Actors portraying baseball players warmed up onstage like they were on a ball field, playing catch and signing autographs for ticket holders. At one point, the ballplayers prompted the crowd to start a wave. Intermission is called the seventh inning stretch and the second act begins only after the entire theater sings “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”
And this doesn’t even cover the most entertaining part of the peripheral experience: the ceremonial first pitch and a rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” On opening night, former Secretary of State and unsuccessful Republican candidate for governor Bob Brown was the guest of honor (each night a different celebrity is introduced). Wearing an Osprey hat and looking a bit uncertain, Brown waddled on stage, was interviewed by the performance’s public address announcer (Osprey owner Matt Ellis), and then delivered a strike—they actually made him toss a ball—across the set. Miss Montana Teen USA, Kendall Powell, then delivered the national anthem to a standing auditorium. The comedy of the spectacle, from Brown’s uneasiness to a theater audience scrambling to its feet, hands over hearts, was priceless—and exactly the type of fourth-wall breakdown MCT was aiming for.
As Powell belted out “…and the home of the brave,” the curtain finally raised to begin the musical in earnest. Damn Yankees is based on Douglass Wallop’s novel, The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant, and was recreated by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross to debut on Broadway exactly 50 years prior to MCT’s opening night. The story begins with Joe Boyd, a diehard Washington Senators fan, ignoring his wife Meg while watching his team lose another game to New York. He falls asleep on his couch muttering that he’d sell his soul for the Senators to have a chance to win it all someday.
Luke Walrath plays Applegate, the devil who responds to Boyd’s wish, and he absolutely dominates the stage from start to finish. Walrath is a veteran of musical theater, having performed in the Broadway revival of The Sound of Music and, more recently, creating the Alpine Theatre Project in Whitefish. His expertise shows in Applegate’s sinister confidence and sly persona, each line delivered with a wicked sense of humor and perfectly placed sass.
Other standouts include Lucas Graf, who plays Joe (after Applegate has turned him into a strapping young ballplayer), and the comedic tandem of Victoria Larson and Lindy Coon playing Doris and Sister. Graf possesses a powerful voice (he’s been in every MCT musical the last two years) and flat-out looks the part of an all-American shortstop. Coon and Larson are given an abundance of opportunities to solicit laughs as Meg’s confidants, and they capitalize every time
There are only a few moments when Damn Yankees loses its pace or swings and misses with its punchlines. The first act felt too long (over 90 minutes), and one of the more important scenes of the second act, wherein young Joe and seductress Lola sing “Two Lost Souls” on the road to hell, lacked the directorial thoughtfulness of the rest of the production. In another rare misstep, the character of Mrs. Welch, owner of the Senators, has been updated to mock the late Marge Schott, controversial former owner of the Cincinnati Reds. Schott is a polarizing figure, once quoted as a Nazi sympathizer and notorious for treating her St. Bernards better than her players. Margaret Johnson does an eerily good job of recreating Schott, but the reference seems unnecessarily risky and too steeped in baseball knowledge to translate. (From my seat I overheard at least three different conversations among people needing explanations of the parody.)
Overall, director Jim Caron and MCT succeed in creating a sincere and infectious environment that makes it almost impossible not to enjoy the production. It’s a carnival atmosphere that may not appeal to more traditional theatergoers who wish to absorb their performances in peace, but it works here. The scene at the end of the night was telling: As the ballplayers congregated in the lobby and mingled with the departing audience, one child approached and asked for an autograph. As the actor obliged, the child said, “This is the most fun I’ve ever had at a baseball game.”
Damn Yankees will be performed at the Missoula Children’s Theatre through Sunday, May 15. Thursday through Saturday performances start at 8 PM, Sunday at 6 PM. Tickets range from $14 to $18. Call 728-PLAY for more information.