CHECKING OUT A PROSPECT Queer Eye's Kressley can turn this schlub into a slugger!
This year marks the Ogunquit Playhouse's 80th season of breezily sophisticated, classic American musical entertainment. Its current show, Damn Yankees, likewise limns an American classic — the baseball obsession — but adds a new and sweetly regionalist twist: The original script, based on Douglass Wallop's wishful novel The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant, and which featured the Washington Senators as the sad-sack team that makes good, has been adapted by playwright Joe DiPietro for New England. The scruffy American League outfit that Joe Boyd sells his soul to redeem is our own Bo-Sox. Jeffry Denman choreographed and directs this energetic and technically stellar updating of the Faustian bargain, which is peppered with Boston logos and references to the Curse of the Bambino.
When the balding, long-suffering Joe (D.C. Anderson) is persuaded to deal with the dark side, it is in the form of Mr. Applegate (played by former Queer Eye for the Straight Guy star Carson Kressley), who offers him the chance to leave his wife Meg (Allison Briner, with a pleasantly dry restraint), join his favorite team as a young star slugger, and swing them to the Championship. They shake hands, lightning strikes, and then Joe Boyd steps out his front door and into the tall and impossibly strapping young form of Joe Hardy (Sam Prince). His is a body made for Golden Age baseball, and the powerfully voiced Prince gives him a game boyish earnestness, even as he lets us see the older Joe's gaze from within. Now all the composite Joe has to do is avoid the wiles of Applegate's demon seductress Lola (Erin Denman) and get the game on with his new teammates.
And those endearingly dopey ballplayers, with their elastic, slapstick grace and fresh-faced camaraderie, are the highlight of this show. In a beautiful physical overture that establishes the failings of the pre-Joe Sox, coaxed along by Coach Van Buren (Ray DeMattis, winningly), in the shadow of a cleverly rendered Green Monster (excellent set design by Rob Bissinger) the players stumble through a variety of training foibles — swings and misses with increasingly oversized bats, wild pitches ending in progressively alarming sound effects. They also perform laudably nimble baseball ballet to the mountain-music optimism of "Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, Mo." And when the whole slew of them break into the three-part harmony of the timeless "You've Gotta Have Heart," beaming in their clean white jerseys, even the most jaded former Sox fan must smile with them.
The biggest cynic of the show, of course, is Applegate, who's long been throwing games and inventing horrible things like The Jersey Shore and Route 1 traffic (as he remarks in a cute bit of audience ribbing). Kressley is a meticulous and slightly petulant Devil with a decent voice and stylish lavender-and-rose summer plaids, and the production gets in a few laugh-line allusions to his famous real-life fine tastes; he has his own brand recognition and a devilishly sharp profile. What he doesn't particularly have is a convincingly devious or entertainingly diabolical character. A devil may be charming, but he also needs at least a hint of the inferno. His staffer Lola, in the hands of Denman, does have it in her campy, acutely danced seduction number, with her preternaturally animated eyes and mouth.