The Conejo Players’ production of Damn Yankees has heart — miles and miles of heart. Unfortunately, it does not have principals who can consistently meet the very high bar set by the show’s talented ensemble and its outstanding production values. In this bottom-heavy production directed by Erin Fagundes with assistance from Janelle Phaneuf, the most exciting performances take place among the cast’s character actors.
Baseball fan Joe Boyd (Larry Craig) hates seeing his favorite team, the Washington Senators, lose every year. Then Mr. Applegate (Aaron Hammersley), aka Mephistopheles, offers to incarnate him as golden boy “Shoeless Joe” Hardy (Rick Perry) to lead his team to victory, provided he returns to his old body and wife Meg (Aileen-Marie Scott) before the eternal hellfire clause takes effect. But since Applegate doesn’t fight fair, he sends his henchwoman Lola (Ixchel Lopez) to seduce Joe and win his soul forever.
As written, the upstanding Joe makes a pretty bland centerpiece to the 1955 musical; Perry’s earnest performance doesn’t do much to change this. The play’s real success turns on Applegate and Lola, who in the 1958 film adaptation were played by Ray Walston and Gwen Verdon — aspirational figures to be sure, but guiding lights for the characters’ possibilities. Only Hammersley doesn’t have nearly enough fun onstage. He portrays the Prince of Darkness as a small-time hustler worried his mark might slip out of his grasp, rather than with the Cheshire grin of a card shark who knows the deck is stacked.
Likewise, Lopez underplays the vampiness in her critical opening number and remains stiff through her locker room seduction number, “Whatever Lola Wants.” The dancer seems more at ease as the reformed seductress than a cynical femme fatale. Her hair doesn’t really come down until a winning mambo number faithful to the Bob Fosse choreography, partnered by an excellent Nikko Arce. That playful confidence carries her into the second act’s “Two Lost Souls,” a slinky, all-is-lost ensemble nightclub number choreographed by Arryck Adams and Tami Keaton, whose sophisticated staging blew me away.
The voices of the leads (too often weak or off-key) may disappoint, but the ensemble and supporting characters consistently exceed expectations. The male chorus shows off the high spirits and dynamism the solo numbers often lack, with the triple-threat Tim Reese leading the pack, closely followed by Kevin Gilmond. Ray Mastrovito milks his role’s comic potential in a pitch-perfect turn as the hard-boiled team coach, while Saige Spinney punches up her scenes as a snappy neighbor with a shy sister (Eve Kiefer in perfect counterpoint).
Rick Steinberg and John Holroyd have crafted a robust multipurpose set that compartmentalizes the large stage space and conjures with vivid detail the varied settings, though painted blaring headlines sometimes distract. Beth Glasner’s costuming for the large cast is almost uniformly high-quality, though in a minor quibble, the fluorescent palette of the opening number seems to have been lifted from a Hairspray production — a little too snazzy for drab, pre-Applegate suburbia. Meg, Lola and lady journalist Gloria Thorpe’s outfits suit their characters especially well.
Conejo Players does many things right with this production, making its shortcomings that much more frustrating. Like Lola, it teases with hints of rapture — and as with the siren and the sportsman, we yearn to see the promises consummated, even if it’s not to be.
Damn Yankees through April 13, 351 S. Moorpark Road, Thousand Oaks. 495-3715 or www.conejoplayers.org.