The setup: Damn Yankees is a zippy, popular 1955 musical about a rabid baseball fan, Joe Boyd, who says he'd sell his soul for a long-ball hitter for his beloved Washington Senators team. Satan, badly disguised as a guy named Mr. Applegate (and it's taken me my whole life to realize there's a reason for that name), is always within earshot when people say that kind of stuff, so he offers Joe a deal. High jinks ensue. Also much pelvic thrusting originally choreographed by Bob Fosse.
The execution: Hale Centre Theatre's current production of Yankees is just about letter-perfect, with strong vocals, athletic choreography by director Cambrian James that manages more interesting moves on Hale's in-the-round stage than one often sees there, and adorable and convincing (and sneakily dance-friendly) period costumes by Corrin Dietlein. (And some genuinely awful wigs, but what are you gonna do? At least they're mostly on the chorus and only briefly.)
There's very little plot here, as perhaps you are already aware, and what there is is largely governed by conveniently invented supernatural principles that don't always hold up in the face of Love (kind of Harry Pottery that way). Some of the dance numbers are just shoehorned in, in that midcentury, The Dick Van Dyke Show style.
But, speaking of tight clamdiggers and toreador pants, Emily Giaque Evans is simply amazing as Lola, the seductress from Hell with a heart of gold. She's compact, curvy, muscular, intimidating, and sweetly vulnerable all at once, and she dances like a fiend. The script only lets Lola be a really bad girl for one or two numbers, and I wish Evans had been just that much badder -- but I guess if she were, she'd be Gwen Verdon or Bebe Neuwirth, each of whom nailed the part on Broadway, and we can't all be them. Sigh.
Kate E. Cook, as ace sports journalist Gloria Thorpe, seems way more womanly that the 19 years her program bio gives her credit for, and she's statuesque and very bendy in her own sassy dance solos. Thorpe throws some spanners in the works of the plot, and Cook makes it hard to believe she could ever be that callous, but it doesn't make all that much sense to begin with, so it might not be an actor problem. The ensemble is super-tight. It's really something to see. The venue is intimate in a good way, and the overall style of the show is a perfect fit there, employing theatrical conventions to draw the audience in but not assaulting them with oversold flash. Hale is always an especially appropriate place to take people who have not yet seen a whole lot of good theater, because they'll be introduced to something they can both appreciate and learn from.
There are several standouts in supporting roles, including Heidi Carpenter as Sister, a friend of Joe's wife. She plays active middle age with humorous spirit, and I've heard that Carpenter has a toddler at home, so: Acting! Genius!
As Applegate, Bryan Stewart is slyly funny, and his catlike demeanor pulls focus when necessary, especially during a big magical moment in Act I that took most of us by surprise. He has weird hair and isn't much of a dancer per se, but now I'm being really picky.
The verdict: This show is so much fun. I'm surprised more people haven't heard of it over the years. Take advantage of the opportunity to see a top-notch Hale production this time of year, when tickets are easier to come by. Damn Yankees continues through Saturday, June 29. at Hale Centre Theatre, 50 West Page Avenue in Gilbert. For tickets, $10 and $24, click here or call 480-497-1181.