Reviews: DAMNED YANKEES and GASLIGHT at the Shaw Festival

by Lynn on May 25, 2022

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. Playing until October.

Damn Yankees

Words and music by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross

Book by George Abbott and Douglass Wallop

(based on the novel by Douglass Wallop, “The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant”)

Directed by Brian Hill

Music direction by Paul Sportelli

Choreography by Allison Plamondon

Set and costumes by Corry Sincennes

Lighting by Mikael Kangas

Sound by John Lott

Magic and illusions by Skylar Fox

Cast: Shane Carty

Élodie Gillett

Patty Jamieson

Gabriel Jones

Allison McCaughey

Mike Nadajewski

Drew Plummer

Kimberley Rampersad

Olivia Sinclair-Brisbane

Jay Turvey

Kelly Wong

And several others.

The Story. Damn Yankees a musical in which a man sells his soul so that his favourite baseball team can beat the Yankees for the Pennant. Damn Yankees is a 1955 musical comedy with words and music by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, and book by George Abbott and Douglass Wallop, based on Wallop’s novel “the Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant.”

It’s based on the Faustian myth of selling your soul to the devil to get something impossible. Joe Boyd is a middle aged, out of shape salesman who loves the Washington Senators, even though they always lose to the dastardly New York Yankees. He wishes they had a long-ball hitter and would win. Enter Mr. Applegate (also known as The Devil—in flashy clothes).

He offers to change Joe Boyd into a much younger, fitter man named Joe Hardy who is a master at hitting the ball and throwing. But Joe has to leave his wife Meg and go off for the season to do it.  Joe wants an escape clause—if he asks to be let out before the end of the season, then he can go back to his wife as he was before; if not then he is the possession of Applegate forever.

But of course, there are complications. Joe gets homesick for Meg, so he goes back to his old neighbourhood, as this young man, asking to rent a room from her. Of course there is a bond between them, in spite of the age difference. Mr. Applegate sees this bond then plots to break that up by sending in Lola, his best homewrecker to seduce Joe and get him away from Meg and play the game, but then, Applegate will cheat on the bargain as well. Good vs bad; love vs evil, all the supposed deep stuff of musicals.

The Production and comment. It’s 1955. Women are expected to be homebodies by their baseball-loving husbands, and ignored during the six months of baseball season. They are called “old girl” by their husbands as a term of endearment. Meg Boyd and her friends are devoted to their husbands but when the six-month baseball season arrives they can kiss good-bye to any attention from their husbands. They are glued to their tv sets watching the game, cheering and lamenting their beloved Washington Senators and damning the New York Yankees who always beat them.

So often actors are directed to be caricatures: screechy, whiney and anything but believable. Such is the case of Sister Miller (Élodie Gillett) and Doris Miller (Allison McCaughey). Really? We are to believe that women in the 1950s are as witless as these actors are asked to behave? Sad. And the same with the ball players? So disheartening.

Applegate has women on payroll who are home wreckers. The best is Lola and she is called out when Joe gets homesick for Meg and goes to the house to rent a room, not of course telling her who he really is.  

I found the musical, sexist and misogynistic to women—and offensive. If it’s of its time, that’s where it should remain and move over to make room for more applicable and timely musicals.

That said, I thought this production directed by Brian Hill was plodding, slow-moving and dreary with a few bright moments. The choreography by Alison Plamondon is pedestrian and derivative. We all wait for the entrance of Lola, the seductress who will bring Joe back into the fold.

Kimberley Rampersad plays Lola. In a very weird entrance upstage and in gloom, we see two long legs flicking in the air. Then the body of the person appears and the legs touch down on the floor, followed by the rest of the body of Lola in a tight red dress, cut high up the leg. I don’t think Ms. Rampersad is helped by either direction or choreography. There is such an effort to make Lola seductive, after we are told that she is seductive, that it is far from effortless. In fact it is labored, obvious and mannered.

Director Brian Hill tries to inject some modern notes to make this musical seem timely. Some of the casting is gender bending—I note there is a woman subtly cast as a Washington Senator ball player. At the bow several of the ball players bow, as men do and that one lone woman, curtsied. OK we get it.

Many of the Cory Sincennes’ set pieces have photos of many women in 1950s dresses as if they in advertisements—and many of the women are Black. Very admirable, but that would never happen in 1955.  You can’t have it both ways—do a sexist musical and think you can make it ok by adding modern touches.

Not all is lost, though. There are a few bright spots in the production. I thought Brian Hill’s direction of the transition of Joe Boyd (a stalwart Shane Carty) to young Joe Hardy (Drew Plummer) was smooth and impressive. As Meg Boyd, Joe’s devoted wife, Patty Jamieson is true, honest and totally believable as the confused, loving and conflicted wife of this guy who just disappeared without a note or reason. I love the ache of the performance.

As Applegate (the slick Devil) Mike Nadajewski is sublime He is effortlessly seductive, manipulative and sly. He is always thinking of the next plot, he’s dangerous and he sings like a dream. As Joe Hardy, Drew Plummer had to sub in at the last minute as the understudy, and he does an admirable job and has a strong voice as well.

But on the whole, Damn Yankees is a dud.

Presented by The Shaw Festival

Runs until: Oct. 9, 2022

Running Time: 2 hours, 45 minutes, with 1 intermission.


Written by Johnna Wright and Patti Jamieson

(based on the play Angel Street  by Patrick Hamilton)

Directed by Kelli Fox

Set and costumes by Judith Bowden

Lighting by Kimberly Purtell

Original music and sound by Gilles Zolty

Cast: Julia Course

Kate Hennig

Julie Lumsden

André Morin

The Story.  A husband, Jack, tries to drive his wife, Bella, insane, suggesting she is losing her memory of simple things, in order to eventually rob her.

British playwright, Patrick Hamilton wrote a dark mystery called Gas Light (two words) in 1938. When it played in New York the title was then changed to Angel Street and it went through many titles.

Canadians, Johnna Wright and Patty Jamieson felt they could revise the play and take out many of the pejorative aspects facing women at the time. The basic story is the same to a point. Jack is trying to drive his wife Bella insane by noting things she has forgotten or lost in the house.

That’s where the phrase gaslighting comes from: the malicious effort in trying to convince you you are imagining things to try and drive one crazy.  Jack notes that Bella’s mother was insane and that Bella is going that way too, in spite of his care of her. Bella believes it too. She hears noises in the attic and no one else in the house does. She senses that the gaslight in the house flickers for no reason in the house. Things disappear and she can’t account for it. She must be going crazy.

In the old version of this play, an old detective, who is wise to the situation, tries to assure Bella she is not going crazy and that her husband is doing this because he knows there are jewels in the house and he’s trying to get her out of the way so he can find them. Bella then trusts the detective to help her.

In this new version of the play writers Johnna Wright and Patty Jamieson remove the detective altogether and have Bella fend for herself and solve the mystery and realize the ruse.

Again, we have a dated play that treats a woman as something to drive crazy, full of the misogyny of the time in London and elsewhere, with a well-meaning effort to make the woman self-reliant. I just think it’s fluffing up old dust. Why bother? There are so many more and better plays than this that speak to a women’s issues.

The Production. While I do have issues with the play, I thought the production was terrific, thanks to the thoughtful, sensitive direction of Kelli Fox, and her wonderful cast. The lights in the theatre subtly went down and just as subtly went up on Judith Bowden’s set.  There are dark furnishings, paintings on the wall, a sense of foreboding in the place.

Julie Lumsden plays Bella with a sense of heightened concern. She is obviously anxious and puts in great effort to be calm. She is the psychologically battered wife who is always seeking her husband’s approval and acceptance. She plays up to him. Is attentive, all in an effort to please him so he won’t be critical of her.  As her shifty husband Jack, André Morin is all poise, calm and concern. He rarely loses his temper and always seems so concerned about his wife’s fragile mind. It’s a measured, compelling nuanced performance. Kate Hennig plays Elizabeth, a no-nonsense maid with a sense that something is not right. Elizabeth has a history with Bella’s family and a great sense of justice.  And Julia Course plays Nancy, another maid who is flippant, arrogant and knows how to play Jack to get what she wants.

All in all, a terrific production of a problematic play.  

Comment. The Shaw Festival is dedicated to the works of George Bernard Shaw and his contemporaries.  George Bernard Shaw was one of the most complex, iconoclastic, irascible, forward thinking, philosophical writers of the 20th century, or any century for that matter. Among other things he championed women’s writes and issues.  In a world in which women’s rights are under fire, Shaw’s championing of women’s issues is needed more than ever. 

So, it’s mystifying, if not blinkered and tone deaf, to see that the Shaw Festival is opening its 60th summer season with two dated, misogynistic, sexist clunkers like Damn Yankees and Gaslight. 

The Shaw Festival Present:

Runs until Oct. 8, 2022

Running Time: 2 hours, 35 minutes, 1 intermission.

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