Take me out to the ballgame! Take me out to the crowd! Buy me some peanuts and crackerjacks! I don’t care if I ever come back! And it’s root— root! Root for The Heritage Players as they pitch a wild one onto their stage at the Rice Auditorium with their production of Damn Yankees. Directed by Michael Hartsfield with Musical Direction by Stephen Michael Deininger, this classic musical with a time stamp of fond nostalgia slides into home plate under these two dedicated men and the company they plant onto the stage. Charming, touching, and a good old fashioned grand-slam of a time, this little fall musical is perfect for the family.
Simplicity is the key to success with a show that harkens back to a simpler lifetime. Set Design Team Members Andrea Bush, Ryan Geiger, Al Gillis and Director Michael Hartsfield make basic structures that transform the setting from the dugout of the Washington Ball Park to a quaint and cozy Chevy Chase home with ease. The same basic yet brilliant approach is applied to the work of Costume Designer Robin Trenner. Crisp white ball club uniforms juxtapose sweetly against the sensible 50’s fashion of the poodle skirt and fitted dresses. The aesthetic of the overall design work transports the audience to a time in our fondly distant past and engages us in a hallmark of yesteryore.
Lighting Designer Stuart Kazanow, who works with the multi-hat-wearing Hartsfield, applies warm interior colors throughout the show to give that glow of nostalgia a visual boost. Working clever red lit cues into poignant moments to really highlight the sinister intentions of our devil character, Mr. Applegate, Kazanow and Hartsfield keep the lighting on the easier side of things, letting the dramatic tension and moods arise from the performances. Kazanow, who also serves as the show’s Sound Designer, gets the real vibe of America’s favorite past time going by broadcasting the show’s opening announcement with Oriole’s Park Camden Yard Announcer Ryan Wagner. Wagner pops it out of the park, packing the opening pomp and circumstance with baseball puns galore.
Choreographer Brook Urquhart lives up to the show’s motto of having heart with his dance routines. While the group-numbered choreography is a little on the less-than-polished side, it’s full of enthusiastic energy and vibrant dedication to having a great time. Keeping those baseball boys on their feet, Urquhart finds fun and exciting moves from them to attempt that really keep them engaged with the spirit of the songs, especially for “Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, MO” and “The Game.” Urquhart does design exceptional solo routines for Gloria Thorpe during “Shoeless Joe…” and for the two sensational dancers (Katie Sheldon and Terrence Bennett) performing during “Who’s Got The Pain?”
Musical Director Stephen Michael Deininger working with Director Hartsfield create an atmosphere of historic charm. Deininger leads the pit with gusto, and keep an ear out for his special effects flute for all of those baseballs whacked out of the park during Joe Hardy’s practice sessions. Hartsfield corrals the ensemble together to create a real “team-feeling” among them, particularly in the baseball group scenes which lead into larger musical numbers.
Cameo players like Sister (Angela Stein) Doris (Miranda Snyder) and Coach Van Buren (John Sheldon) get their chance at bat throughout the show leaving little lasting memories and impressions on the audiences. Stein and Snyder have precious affected accents in their quirky characters, with Stein delivering several of the zippy zinging one-liners that close out each of the “talkie scenes.” Sheldon, as a blustering gritty team coach, really digs into the dirt with his heels when it comes to making his presence felt in scenes where he has to deal with the nervously spastic Mr. Welch (Lenny Taube) or when bristling against reporters and Joe Hardy’s manager.
Opening the show with “Six Months Out of Every Year” Meg Boyd (Suzanne Young) really hits it out of the park with her strong but heartfelt voice. Young is invested in this nagging song, which makes the contrast of her heartache that occurs later in “A Man Doesn’t Know (Reprise).” Paired up with both the dashing young Joe Hardy for a duet, “Near to You” and with Joe Boyd (Kevin Kelehan) at the show’s finale, Young holds her own in the great vocal race for home plate in this production.
Comic yuck-ups Smokey (Gary Reichard) and Rocky (Terrence Bennett) are regular standouts in the bullpen when it comes to funny stuff happening on stage. Reichard and Bennett both have strong voices for leading the ball-player ensemble into “The Game.” Reichard and Bennett deliver full-body investment to their characters as well as accents that suit the intellectual humors that are peppered into their dialogue exchanges.
Hot to trot as a fiery pistol, pipsqueak Gloria Thorpe (Ashley Gerhardt), reporter superstar extraordinaire doesn’t let her diminuitive stature stand in her way of scoring the leading run time after time. Gerhardt, a well-known scene-stealer in the community theatre scene, takes hold of the Thorpe character and delivers her with enormous intentions. Bristling with vigor in her interactions with Mr. Applegate, Gerhardt adds her own zesty zingers to those dialogue exchanges. Her vocals are a wicked curvy fastball for “Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, MO” and she tap-kicks up the baselines all throughout the number.
An unctuous urchin of the underworld wrapped in the sinful tempting body of Lola (Katie Sheldon) saunters onto the scene and blazes her brass all around the ballpark. Sheldon is a hotsie-totsie sexpot incarnate but keeps it family friendly and wildly appropriate for the era in which the show is set. With irresistible panache, Sheldon dominates “A Little Brains, A Little Talent” and delivers a stunning fiery tango routine along with superb vocals for “Whatever Lola Wants.” Revealing her performative versatility with a complete 360-approach to her character in the second act, Sheldon warms to Joe Hardy in a fond and entertaining duet, “Two Lost Souls.”
Ryan Geiger takes on the sinister and unscrupulous devil of Mr. Applegate. Playing the straight-edged villain is a challenge that Geiger rises to with hellish success. From his flame-stoked socks up to his too-cool hat, Geiger owns the sincerity of the role, which gives the character a razor-sharp edge delivered in simple words. His big solo, “Those Were the Good Old Days” is a sizzling sensation of a crowd pleaser and really brings home the applause from the audience. Cheeky, charming, and nefariously earnest, Geiger owns the role like he sold his soul to the devil to do so.
Knocking his performance out of the park, Jim Gerhardt as the eager and upstart Joe Hardy belongs in the Heritage Players Hall of Fame. With a gorgeous voice that sounds as if it were crafted for the times, Gerhardt emotionally connects to every number with vested interest. “A Man Doesn’t Know” is a wistful trip laced with strong waves of uncertainty and regret while “Two Lost Souls” showcases his freedom and resignation to fate. Commanding a remarkable stage presence with his perfectly articulate animated facial features and body language gestures, Gerhardt hits a grand slam in this role, making the production a surefire winner.
Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes with one intermission
Damn Yankees plays through October 31, 2015 at Heritage Players in the Rice Auditorium of the Spring Grove Hospital Campus— 55 Wade Avenue in Catonsville, MD. Tickets can be purchased at the door or in advance online.