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Damn Yankees’ gets modern makeover

By Clara Polley

Nov. 6, 2007 9:00 p.m.

Last Thursday, Joe Torre, who managed the New York Yankees to four World Series titles, was announced as the new manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers, which haven’t won the Series for almost 20 years.

Just as Torre hopes to invigorate his new L.A. team, the hit musical “Damn Yankees,” which is also making its way from New York to Los Angeles, hopes to win over Angeleno audiences.

The award-winning baseball musical opened Tuesday and runs until Nov. 25 at UCLA’s Freud Playhouse with the theater company Reprise! Broadway’s Best.

“Damn Yankees,” which is the company’s second production of the season, tells the story of Joe, a middle-aged man who is continuously frustrated with the fact that his team, the L.A. Dodgers, is consistently beaten by the New York Yankees, a sentiment many Dodgers fans can share.

The original “Damn Yankees” first premiered on Broadway in 1955 and followed with a film in 1958 and a successful revival on Broadway in 1994. In this original adaptation, Joe was a fan of the Washington, D.C., Senators, rather than the Dodgers, while the Yankees remained the enemy team.

The musical’s classic status makes it just the right material for a company such as Reprise!, which is dedicated to the production of theatrical revivals from the canon of great American musicals.

And the ’50s production is based on an even older story: the infamous legend of Faust.

The desperate Joe eventually makes a pact with the devil, Applegate, who promises to transform Joe into a baseball star and lead his team to victory in exchange for his soul.

Lighting designer and former UCLA student Francois-Pierre Couture feels that “Damn Yankees” has kept its appeal over the decades because of its classic theme of risking the soul for a dream.

“We sell ourselves and sacrifice something in life for something else and then we realize what we really wanted is what we gave up in the first place. I think it’s a universal theme,” he said.

Actress Jackée Harry who plays Sister, the friend to Joe’s wife, simply felt that it all came down to American’s passion for one thing: baseball.

“When you go to a game, it’s so exciting,” Harry said. “And the men look really handsome in those clothes.”

Director Jason Alexander of Seinfeld fame brought more to the musical than simply baseball though; he attempted to re-envision the classic musical by adding a new flavor to its old themes. The authors of the musical permitted him to update and adjust the original script by making it more contemporary.

“Damn Yankees” has not only changed its setting from Washington to Los Angeles; the production also underwent a significant time shift from the mid-1950s to 1981.

Couture feels that bringing the plot to the ’80s influenced the music arrangements as well as the costumes and lighting.

“Everything is more modern. It has a jazz feel to it, so even the colors had to be chosen accordingly.”

Harry also thinks that the production rests on its jazzed-up music.

“The music is the star of the show,” she said.

In addition to a more recent setting, the musical also hopes to appeal to an audience of students.

“We are trying to appeal to a younger audience in a city that doesn’t (attend) musicals all the time,” Harry said.

Even though these changes to the classic play might cause complications, Couture credits Alexander’s abilities as a director in alleviating any problems.

“He keeps a very good atmosphere at the theater and keeps the stress level low,” he said.

And among all these adjustments, both Couture and Harry see the true triumph of Reprise!’s “Damn Yankees” in the multiethnic cast.

“This brings a whole new dimension to the production,” said Couture, noting that the previous “Damn Yankees” productions, especially in the ’50s, were usually made up of a Caucasian-only cast.

Harry, who grew up with the story of “Damn Yankees” as a young girl, also feels that the play benefits from its newfound diversity.

“It’s all across the board,” Harry said. “It’s the first time I have ever seen it with many different people and different backgrounds. It’s kind of historic.”

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Clara Polley
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