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Drew Plummer as Vernon, Kevin McLachlan as Smokey, Andrew Broderick as Rocky and Jay Turvey as Van Buren in Damn Yankees.Michael Cooper 2022 coopershoots.com/Shaw Festival

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  • Title: Damn Yankees
  • Words and music by: Richard Adler and Jerry Ross
  • Book by: George Abbott and Douglass Wallop
  • Director: Brian Hill
  • Actors: Drew Plummer, Kimberley Rampersad, Mike Nadajewski
  • Company: Shaw Festival
  • Venue: Festival Theatre
  • City: Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.
  • Year: To Oct. 9, 2022
  • COVID-19 measures: Masks required (except when eating or drinking) until June 10

Damn Yankees, now up at the plate at the Shaw Festival, is one of the stranger artifacts of Broadway past – a 1955 musical comedy that promises fun fantasy but delivers something closer to a guilt trip.

Joe Boyd (Shane Carty) is a middle-aged real estate agent and long-suffering fan of the Washington Senators, a perennially losing baseball franchise. One night, after a particularly bad game, he sells his soul to a devil named Mr. Applegate (Mike Nadajewski) in order to be transformed into a long-ball hitter who might just help his team win the pennant and beat those darn New York Yankees.

Say hello to Joe Hardy (now played by Drew Plummer), Boyd’s young and fit alter-ego, who arrives at the Senators clubhouse and is immediately added to the roster after knocking pitch after pitch out of the park.

We hardly get through a scene of these vicarious athletic thrills, however, before Joe starts to pine for his wife, Meg (Patty Jamieson). He apparently loves her quite passionately despite calling her his “old girl” in the first scene and ditching her without explanation in the middle of the night.

“A man doesn’t know what he has until he loses it,” Joe sings, a shoddy explanation in a lovely tune. “When a man has the love of a woman he abuses it.”

Now say hola to Lola (Kimberley Rampersad), another supernatural creature, summoned by Applegate to tempt Joe away from his wife. She arrives in the locker room and sings, in a famous song delivered for unclear reasons in a Spanish accent, “Whatever Lola wants, Lola gets.” But, in fact, Joe’s commitment to his wife is so unwavering that Lola is instead seduced away from the dark side.

Say what you will about the plays of Bernard Shaw, at least he gives the devil his due. Damn Yankees, on the other hand, comes off as a moralistic sermon about monogamous marriage – and yet is also one of the worst advertisements for the institution, in its 1950s form anyway, you’ll ever encounter.

Poor homemaker Meg stays loyal and unquestioning, blaming herself and assuming the best of her absent husband. Meanwhile, Joe spends the whole baseball season abstaining from supernatural sex in a body not his own and is depicted as “loyal” – despite otherwise abandoning his wife, for whimsical reasons, not once, but twice.

There’s no doubt that Joe is a perplexing romantic lead. Plummer (who is in for James Daly for the next four weeks, owing to injury) is likeable in the part, has a sweet and resonant tenor and very much looks a slugger, but you’re hard pressed to really understand why his character does any of the things he does.

(I wouldn’t blame the understudy: Joe’s moral code must have seem riddled with holes, even back in 1955. According to Broadway folklore, Stephen Douglass, the actor who originated the part, is said to have once asked original director and co-writer George Abbott what his motivation was. Replied Abbott: “Your salary.”)

Director Brian Hill’s production is polished on the surface – one of the slickest I’ve seen of a musical at the Shaw Festival, in fact – with magic and illusions by Skylar Fox that make you want to burst into applause. But he doesn’t really seem to know how to either sell the old-school, verging-on-vaudeville comedy (at least when Nadajewski, a master of such, is not on stage) or the strange story.

A kind of commentary on the action does emerge through designer Cory Sincennes’s attractive set, which blows up 1950s ads for items from bras to Zippos into backdrops. You get a sense that the contradictions of the show simply channel the contradictions of postwar consumer culture, when homemakers and pin-up girls were used in alternation to sell stuff (and cigarettes were marketed in healthy terms).

The last time Damn Yankees was revived on Broadway, in 1994, it got more than a questioning visual framing; the book by Abbott and Douglass Wallop was rewritten. For this Shaw production, however, we’re back to the 1955 version, with the only changes being a few offensive lyrics rewritten by Neil Bartram (who writes musicals with Hill).

Jay Turvey as Van Buren with the Washington Senators in Damn Yankees.Michael Cooper 2022 coopershoots.com/Shaw Festival

Allison Plamondon’s choreography misses opportunities to fill in gaps. In the rather long dance number Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, MO, Joe’s rise as a baseball player is charted – but for some reason he’s left offstage during it. Plamondon’s version of Who’s Got the Pain?, the mock mambo that brings the first act to a conclusion, feels like the filler it is.

There are no doubt many memorable songs in the Damn Yankees score by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, and the band sounds just great under the musical director of Paul Sportelli. But the musical is probably better remembered these days as the show where the great comedienne Gwen Verdon, who originated the part of Lola, got together with a then up-and-coming choreographer named Bob Fosse.

If Fosse’s moves are hard to top, Verdon’s shoes are nearly impossible to fill. Rampersad, who is also associate artistic director at the Shaw Festival, tries her damnedest as Lola, however.

Her dancing is evocative (even if her routines are a bit restrained), and what she lacks in laugh-out-loud comic timing she makes up for with heart; she’s the only character you remotely give a darn about. And you gotta have heart, as the baseball players in Damn Yankees sing – though it would have been nice for this production to locate a soul as well.

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