Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (March 4, 2021)
According to A League of Their Own, there’s no crying in baseball. However, apparently there is singing and dancing in baseball, as established by 1958’s Damn Yankees.
Middle-aged Washington Senators fan Joe Boyd (Robert Shafer) suffers through one losing season after another, usually due to the dominance of the New York Yankees. Fed up, Joe declares he would sell his soul to see the Senators acquire one “long ball hitter”.
This immediately leads to the presence of Applegate (Ray Walston), an incarnation of Satan. Applegate offers Joe an offer he can’t refuse: if Joe agrees, Applegate will restore Joe’s youth so he becomes the coveted “long ball hitter”.
Joe agrees, with one “out”: if he quits before the season’s final game, he keeps his soul. This turns him into Joe Hardy (Tab Hunter), a baseball phenom who immediately makes the Senators relevant – and who encounters plenty of temptation that Applegate puts in front of him to ensure Joe loses his soul, mainly via seductress Lola (Gwen Verdon).
As a kid in the 70s, I saw a lot of musicals because my Mom enjoyed them. These included a touring company of Yankees that included Vernon.
In her 50s by that point, Verdon perhaps may have been a little long in the tooth for sexpot Lola, but as I recall, she gave the role all the requisite va-va-voom. That said, I was nine years old, so what did I know?
I’ve not re-encountered Yankees since my youth, and that leaves me surprised how much of the story and music I remember. I’ve forgotten pretty much everything most of the shows I watched – like Hellzapoppin - but quite a lot of Yankees stuck.
Does this mean Yankees must be an exemplary example of musical theater? No – I wouldn’t call this a classic.
However, Yankees does offer a fun experience, and the baseball setting helps engage those of us who often shy away from musicals in general. The film comes with a fun story idea, and it uses the narrative in a lively manner.
A good cast helps. Hunter was never much of an actor, but he does fine as the wide-eyed Joe. Granted, he should probably give off more of a feel related to Joe’s status as a middle-aged guy, but nonetheless, Hunter holds up his end of the bargain.
Because Hunter gets the straight man role, he doesn’t need to do much more than look handsome anyway. Verdon and Walston carry the heaviest load, and they help succeed.
Walston brings wicked, sly energy to his devil, and Verdon offers all the seductive energy needed for Lola. She needs to portray a mix of moods and attitudes for Lola, and she pulls these off splendidly.
Throw in a little pathos related to Joe’s relationship with wife Meg (Shannon Bolin), some inventive production numbers choreographed by Bob Fosse and Yankees turns into a solid musical experience. Expect it to entertain and delight.