In 1955, when baseball was considered the national game, the struggles of an underdog team made a surefire subject for a musical. Today, sports fans lavish their strongest emotions on basketball and pro football, but an outstanding production of "Damn Yankees" at Toby's Dinner Theatre proves that the show still has the power to delight an audience.
The show opens with a chorus of suburban husbands watching a baseball game on television, to the despair of their neglected wives. The men are rooting for the Washington Senators against the New York Yankees, but they're backing a lost cause (in the 1950s, the Washington team had a permanent home at the bottom of the American League, while the New Yorkers were virtually invincible).
One particularly outspoken fan, Joe Boyd (Daniel L. McDonald), exclaims that he'd sell his soul to the devil to see the Senators clobber the Yankees.
Here the authors, Douglass Wallop and George Abbott, introduce another surefire element: the Faust legend. The story of a man selling his soul to the devil in return for having his fondest wishes granted has been a favorite of dramatists for centuries. It has been put on the stage by Goethe and others, set to music by composers including Berlioz and Gounod and used in such movies as "All That Money Can Buy" (1941) and "Bedazzled" (1967 and 2000).
In "Damn Yankees," the Devil (Bob Brenner), going by the name of Mr. Applegate, appears to Joe and offers to turn him into a long-ball hitter who will lead the Senators to victory - if he will forfeit his soul. But Boyd is cagey and insists on an escape clause, and Applegate agrees. (Unfortunately, the devil appears to capitulate too easily to be convincing.)
In a cloud of smoke, the middle-aged Joe Boyd is transformed into the young, athletic Joe Hardy (Russell Sunday). He is hired by the Senators' manager, Benny Van Buren (Robert Biedermann), and immediately the team finds itself on a winning streak.
But Joe is lonely and homesick. He rents a room in his own house, unrecognized by his wife, Meg (Lynne R. Sigler). Applegate, afraid that Joe's longing for Meg will hurt his performance on the diamond, calls on another of his victims, the sinuous Lola (Carla Della Torre).
A seduction scene, sung to "Whatever Lola Wants, Lola Gets," closes the first act. In the second act, of course, everything works out satisfactorily, and the audience gets to hear the show's other hit song, "Two Lost Souls."
There's an old saying at sports arenas, "You can't tell the players without a program." In this production, you can't tell the songwriters even with a program; their names are given nowhere in its pages. So let me report that the score of "Damn Yankees" was written by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross.
There isn't a foul ball in the performance. All the singing voices are good, some outstanding. A.K. Brink, as sportswriter Gloria Thorpe, deserves some sort of prize for accomplishing a series of fast costume changes in Act I.
Portraying the ballplayers are Matt Conner, Peter N. Crews, David James (as Rocky, the pitcher, his pantomimed windups look like the real thing), Shawn Kettering, Larry Munsey, Brad Nacht, John Andrew Rose and Stephen Gregory Lee Smith.
Other roles are filled by Erin Frame Albrecht, Heather Marie Beck, Deborah Bonacorsi, Vincent Kirk, Kevin Laughon, Mike Quinn, Jill Shullenbarger, Terry Sweeney and Tamarin K. Ythier.
Lively staging by director Toby Orenstein and energetic choreography by Ilona Kessell effectively keep to the story, and help you overlook the fact that the authors dragged in one or two numbers - such as the mambo "Who's Got the Pain?" - that don't have much to do with the plot. Larry Munsey's costumes successfully suggest the 1950s.
With its production of "Damn Yankees," Toby's Dinner Theatre knocks one into the stands.
Toby's Dinner Theatre, 5900 Symphony Woods Road, Columbia, presents "Damn Yankees" through Sept. 2. Doors open 5 p.m. Sundays, 6 p.m. Mondays to Saturdays. Matinees: Doors open 10:30 a.m. Sundays and Wednesdays. Reservations are required. Information or reservations: 410-995- 1969 or 1-800-8TOBYS.