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Opera House's ‘Yankees' is a major league show

There are home runs aplenty in the Lancaster Opera House production of "Damn Yankees."

The 1955 musical comedy is one of those shows that many people recognize, but do not have the fortune of seeing live anymore. It can't be easy to find a team of effective (or convincing) baseball player-types who can swing dance as well as they can swing a bat; a seductive comedian who can carry a legendary song off as her own; or a pit orchestra that doesn't underwhelm a brassy, showy score.

Well, the opera house has found all of that, and more. Its production is sure to delight if you are a fan of the musical – and its signature song, "Whatever Lola Wants" – but more than likely, it is bound to surprise you.

With due respect to the Lancaster producing venue and its community, shows there have rarely been regarded as anything beyond cute. But with the work seen here, that might start to change. Don't miss out on this one.

Artistic Director David Bondrow directs this show with an astute awareness of George Abbott and Douglas Wallop's wonderfully written characters (based on Wallop's book, "The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant"). Bondrow's signature showman aesthetic is all over the production, and effectively so. This "Damn Yankees" is as much fun as you would imagine the original was.

The score, by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, is practically a better version of its other big hit of the era, "The Pajama Game." Similarly known for its signature tunes ("Steam Heat" and "Hey There"), it lacked the universal appeal to be found in a show about a losing baseball team.

Where "The Pajama Game" was for the adults at heart – a musical romance about a factory strike (yawn) – "Damn Yankees" was for the little boys who collected player cards, their big brothers and fathers who played catch with them in the front yard and the wives who laughed about their husband's silly pastime.

The qualities that make that nostalgia pour out through our tapping toes and wide smiles are the strengths of this production: genuine comedy a la "The Honeymooners," serious dancing disguised as athleticism, and hummable, tuneful music performed by real brass instruments.

Peter Hargrave, an actor brought in from New York City for this production, is a perfect Joe Hardy, the rookie player on the losing Washington Senators baseball team who breaks into stardom on and off the field. Both Hardy and Hargrave are wide-eyed and innocent, and seriously talented. A charming face and a masculine frame don't hurt matters; he could easily pass as a major leaguer.

The famous role of Mr. Applegate often gets marquee billing. In Broadway revivals, Jerry Lewis and Victor Garber have taken on Applegate's sly pitchman persona. He might be played any number of ways, though above anything he must be devilish since he is, in fact, the devil. At the top of the show, he offers the overweight, middle-aged Joe Boyd, a loyal Senators fan, the chance to transform into the handsome, young Joe Hardy, and play for his favorite team – the devil's price, of course, being Boyd's soul.

Christopher Standard does new things with this delicious part. Applegate must be charming, but also cunning. He's the enemy, but he has to put on a great show, too. His magical powers are never untapped, and the same can be said for Standard's interpretation. You might miss the magnetism of someone like Lewis, that starry wink ready to seal any deal. But in its place we get a self-serving magician whose evil ways come more logically from a place of trickery than charm.

Kaylee Jakubowski, our buxom Lola, Applegate's assistant charged with seducing Hardy, is a breakout star here. She gets Lola to a T, and kills every number she carries.Smaller roles are handled wonderfully, notably Katy Miner's Meg Boyd, a role that's short on singing (a bummer, since Miner can wail) but filled with character. It's nice to see Miner have this much room to act. There's a lot more to list here, like the fantastic costumes and clever set, and Kevin Leary's demanding choreography. But that much can wait for the next show – a show I can't wait for.

***

"Damn Yankees"

4 stars (out of 4)

Through Saturday in the Lancaster Opera House, 21 Central Ave., Lancaster. Tickets are $20-$22. Call 683-1776 or visit www.lancopera.org.