Musical needs more deviled ham

September 28, 1995|By MIKE GIULIANO | MIKE GIULIANO,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

What with a movie career that's seen him embody everything from a spastic bellhop to a nutty professor, you can imagine how much fun Jerry Lewis must have playing the devil in the musical "Damn Yankees." Unfortunately, all too often you do have to imagine the possibilities as you watch the post-Broadway touring production of "Damn Yankees," playing at the Lyric Opera House through this weekend.

Although the veteran comic provides a few of his trademark loony moments, more often he is subdued to the point of nearly resembling a normal human being. This devil isn't very devilish.

What gives? Namely, why isn't he giving us more of the bodily and vocal contortions that make Jerry Lewis so beloved by some people -- OK, the French -- and reviled by others?

Here's my hunch as to what makes the 69-year-old comedian's performance seem odd. His portrayal of Applegate (a k a, the devil) -- which, by the way, served as Mr. Lewis' much-belated Broadway debut -- is as restrained as his relatively recent movie roles in "The King of Comedy" and "Funny Bones." Yes, Jerry, you're now a serious actor, but the silly '50s fantasy "Damn Yankees" isn't the place to go subtle on us. After all, its gaudy set design includes a living room adorned with a lime green TV set. Every few scenes, the actor seems to realize as much. He'll suddenly turn his voice into a whine and cast a demented look at an audience craving just such vintage insanity.

To give this devil his due, Mr. Lewis' big solo number in the second act, "Those Were the Good Old Days," finally finds him completely cutting loose. This song-and-dance-and-low-comedy routine is an impressively hilarious example of a comedian who knows how to work a house.

It's a shame Mr. Lewis gives such an unstable, new Jerry vs. old Jerry performance, because otherwise this revival features more hits than strikeouts. Although the 1955 show itself would never be mistaken for a great musical, enough of its Eisenhower-era innocence still charms.

And while the plot's leisurely development of its sporting riff on the "Faust" legend may have you yearning for a seventh-inning stretch, it's ultimately a satisfying game.

The musical's original book by George Abbott and Douglass Wallop has been revised by director Jack O'Brien with mixed results. This revamped book even includes a topical baseball reference to the 1994 baseball strike. Such tinkering is sometimes to funny effect, but it's also indicative of a production that doesn't always seem sure whether it wants to stay within its mid-1950s setting.

As for "Damn Yankees" as a period piece -- hey, we're talking about a time when Washington, D.C., had a professional baseball team. The plot concerns a middle-aged Washington Senators fan, Joe Boyd (Dennis Kelly), who would do anything to see this mediocre team beat the almighty New York Yankees in a pennant race. Enter Applegate and later his hellish henchwoman, Lola (Valerie Wright) -- she of "Whatever Lola Wants (Lola Gets)" fame -- to offer Boyd a most unusual deal.

This ordinary Joe is miraculously transformed into a 22-year-old lTC baseball superstar named Joe Hardy (David Elder), who is capable of taking the Senators all the way. Choreographer Rob Marshall's "Blooper Ballet" demonstrates just how much the inept Senators need this new Joe. Moral complications naturally ensue, chief among them whether it's worth selling your soul in order to see your team in first place (be still, Orioles fans).

Joe Boyd also feels bad about mysteriously disappearing on his wife, Meg (Susan Bigelow), even though she manages to console herself, in the finest '50s fashion, by learning card games and maintaining a clean kitchen.

For those keeping score where the score is concerned, the agreeable songs by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross include the crowd-pleasing "Heart," which gets every Senator singing. Curiously, though, this production's musical highlights come in the ballads, as when Meg and both Joes join forces at her bedside for a moving, if metaphysically rather bizarre, "Near to You."

'Damn Yankees'

Where: Lyric Opera House, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave.

When: 8 p.m. today, tomorrow and Saturday; 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; 7:30 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: $19 to $55

Call: (410) 481-SEAT

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