Monday, 13 October 2014

Theatre review: Damn Yankees at the Landor Theatre



Damn Yankees cast (c)Roy Tan

With The Pajama Game having just departed the West End, another Broadway classic from composer and lyricist-duo Richard Adler & Jerry Ross and playwright George Abbott has made its way onto a London stage; Damn Yankees. Rather than gracing the boards of a grand venue on the capital's famous Shaftesbury Avenue, the cast fill a small space at the back of a pub in Clapham. It was my first visit to the Landor Theatre and while I initially wasn't convinced when I heard about its location, having just three rows of seats meant the view was unrestricted for all audience members and the intimate setting added to the charm of the space.

The Pajama Game wasn't flawless but it was good old-fashioned fun (read my full review here) and I was excited to see another production from the creative team behind the show, especially since the original run won an astonishing eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical. Unfortunately this Faustian story, which originally opened on Broadway in the mid-1950s, hasn't aged well. The book felt dated and even the enthusiastic performances from the largely graduate cast weren't able to insert some much-needed joie de vivre into the show.


Alex Lodge (Joe Hardy) and Jonathan D. Ellis (Mr. Applegate) (c)Roy Tan

The story is this: Joe Hardy in an overweight middle-aged man who is obsessed with baseball. While he is reasonably happy in his marriage, his single-minded love for the game makes him easily deceptable when the slick Mr. Applegate offers him the chance of a lifetime. He promises to turn Joe back to his prime but with one exception, Joe will no longer just love baseball, he'll actually be an all-star player who will lead his team to victory. The offer sounds too good to be true, which of course it is as Mr. Applegate is none other than the Devil himself and everyone knows that if you strike a deal with hell's dictator that you'll end up getting hurt. 

While this may sound like the Joe Hardy show, it's in actual fact Jonathan D. Ellis' portrayal of Mr. Applegate that steals the show, though that is not necessarily a good thing. While he certainly oozes charisma as the flamboyant devil, egged on by the audience he hammers up his performance and milks his scenes until the character becomes a caricature of himself. The over the top approach became aggravating after a while and seemed out of place in the otherwise dated material. Alex Lodge's understated performance as Joe Hardy on the other hand was charming if somewhat inexperienced considering he is supposed to be a middle-aged man, even if he does look like a hotshot in his early twenties. 


Alex Lodge (Joe Hardy) and Poppy Tierney (Lola) (c)Roy Tan

Musically the majority of the gentler songs in this show weren't very memorable, save A Man Doesn't Know but that too came across as a slightly inferior version of Hey There from The Pajama Game. Damn Yankees' strength lies in the big and bold ensemble numbers. With a slick choreography by Robbie O'Reilly (who rightfully so has been nominated for an Off West End award for his work on the show) and beautiful harmonies, the rare moments this production shines are with the fabulously fun Heart, Shoeless Joe and The Game. With so much potential it's a shame then that there was no big showstopper before the interval or even a grand finale.

Returning to London so soon after The Pajama Game, it's inevitable to draw comparison between that and Damn Yankees and unfortunately it is the former that has both a superior book and music, not to mention a subject matter that is far less all-American and so more easily relatable for UK audiences. Damn Yankees did have its moments with a few big show numbers, an unanimously enthusiastic cast and delightful acoustics in the intimate space of the Landor where I'll certainly be returning to, but with dialogue such as "go home, get married and have children" the book showed its age and with a heavy focus on the least likeable character this isn't the home-run it could have been.




Damn Yankees is running at the Landor Theatre until 8 November 2014, you can buy tickets here.

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