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Say It Ain’t So

Inning after inning, Damn Yankees swings and misses.

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Illustration by Henry Janson   

During the all-star break, when so many of them will have time on their hands, the actual Yankees should be forced to see Richard Adler and Jerry Ross’s Damn Yankees, now being revived at Encores! It might inspire the middling squad to be reminded that there was a time when opposing fans needed a deal with the Devil to keep them out of the World Series. If it doesn’t, the team still might enjoy watching some other bunch of talented folks sink to mediocrity for a change.

For both varieties of Yankee, the key word is “underperforming.” Uncannily, the revival is getting inferior work out of every single person in a crucial role. By this I don’t mean to beat up on Jane Krakowski for not being Gwen Verdon, for whom the character of the temptress Lola was choreographed (by future husband Bob Fosse) in 1955. She actually fares okay, considering the degree of difficulty and the murkier work on every side: Her castmates, director, and designers have all done much better work elsewhere.

Right from the start, there’s a rushed, slapdash feel to the proceedings. It’s hard to imagine that the lighting crew really intended to play hide-and-seek with the follow spots, or to briefly make Cheyenne Jackson (who plays Joe, the aging fan turned by the Devil into a five-tool superstar) the color of a Smurf. (Do not get me started on the now-you-hear-them-now-you-don’t microphones.) Director John Rando won my everlasting affection with his deliciously screwball work on Urinetown, but the storytelling here is spasmodic, making an admittedly creaky musical comedy feel like a dirge with punch lines.

The fun gets muffled even in the unlikeliest spots. For eight seasons of Will & Grace, Sean Hayes was one of TV’s dependable minor pleasures: propulsively silly, with a terrier’s energy. Watching his uptight turn as the Devil (a role that requires more personality than Acting), I wished for once that a TV star would do what the crowd panted for him to do and cut loose already. (When he does, it’s too late.) Jackson, too, is mystifyingly downbeat, projecting little of the comic charm he flashed in All Shook Up and Xanadu. Though he sings sweetly, he’s riding his microphone, barely projecting. Even the great dancer John Selya disappoints. Twyla Tharp’s choreography in Movin’ Out let him show off his dazzling knack for altitude and velocity, all leaps and runs. The Fosse dances here, jammed full of compressed little gestures, box him in. It’s like watching A-Rod bunt.

"Our fag rhymes are tight!” raps T-Bag, a star of Bash’d. Tight enough, anyway. The verses he drops with his partner Feminem might not keep Nas up nights, but their gay rap opera makes a preposterous idea work so well you can only applaud the result. Chris Craddock and Nathan Cuckow tell a “Romeo and Romeo” story of two men falling in love, getting married (they’re Canadian, you understand), and grappling with a bigoted attack, rapping almost the entire time. It’s overheated now and then, and makes an unfortunate detour through the supernatural, but it turns out to be more amusing than anything else in musical theater’s avant-garde.

In fact, though it’s intriguing to watch rap and the musical inch ever-closer, the real draw of Bash’d is anthropological: watching gay culture and hip-hop culture collide. Craddock and Cuckow declare up front that they’re reclaiming “faggot,” as two generations of rappers before them have reclaimed various racial slurs. They’re also carrying on Missy Elliott and Lil’ Kim’s mission of extending the rapping-inappropriately-about-sex franchise to a group other than straight men. The way T-Bag and Feminem see it, homosexuals are entitled to use the same obscene language as everybody else. “As Nasty As They Wanna Be,” they might have called the show, if somebody hadn’t gotten there first.

Damn Yankees
Music and lyrics by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross.
City Center. Through July 27.

Bash’d
By Chris Craddock and Nathan Cuckow; Music by Aaron Macri.
The Zipper Factory.

E-mail: theatercritic@newyorkmag.com.


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