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Devilishly Good Jerry Lewis In 'Damn Yankees'

By Lloyd Rose

Thursday, December 12, 1996; Page C01

Playing Applegate, a k a the Devil, in "Damn Yankees," which opened last night at the Kennedy Center, Jerry Lewis makes his first appearance from a puff of smoke. It's an altogether appropriate entrance, not only for the character but for Lewis, who brings with him a certain touch of dark magic. Now 70, Lewis has been performing for 65 years: Anyone who's spent that many years in show business knows something about Hell, and a helluva lot about performing. "Smoke and mirrors, kiddo, smoke and mirrors," Applegate murmurs after one trick, and Lewis could be describing his own work here, which is as elegant and skilled as any magician's.

Set in 1955, "Damn Yankees" tells the story of Joe Boyd (Dennis Kelly), a middle-age fan of those eternal baseball losers, the Washington Senators. "I'd sell my soul for [the team to have] one long-ball hitter!" he declares and -- poof! -- Applegate is there. Soon Joe has entered into a Faustian bargain to become a young player named Joe Hardy (John-Michael Flate), who bats .524, and the Senators are on their way to the top. Joe has even negotiated an escape clause allowing him to keep his soul -- forcing Applegate to unleash his Secret Weapon, the satanic sex bomb Lola (Valerie Wright).

It's all very corny and harmless. Director Jack O'Brien has revised and updated the original book by George Abbott and Douglass Wallop (the author of the novel on which the show was based), adding jokes about Joe McCarthy, J. Edgar Hoover and the Edsel. The male sports reporter is now a woman (Ellen Grosso), and the story has somehow metamorphosed into a tale about a guy who really loves his unglamorous wife. In addition to retooling the script, O'Brien has directed the production with fastball zip, and the choreography by Rob Marshall has an engaging bounce. The result is puppyishly eager to please and impossible to dislike.

As Lola, Wright is a terrific dancer with a knock-'em-dead figure, but she's a little perky and athletic in a role that really wants a Bad Girl (think the original Lola, Gwen Verdon, or the young Madonna). Kelly, as the pre-transformation Joe, and Joy Franz as his wife are sweet in their sentimental roles, and Flate is an engaging Hardy. Some of the performers push their shtick into stridency, but no one is actually offensive.

Much of the creative energy seems to have gone into finding excuses to get the Senators into yet one more rousing dance routine. They dance on the field and they dance in the locker room and they dance the show's Big Mambo Number at a hospital benefit. Meanwhile, we in the audience are just counting the moments until Lewis enters again.

Lewis never hurries, he never strains, he hardly seems to raise his voice -- he knows he doesn't have to sweat, that he can make us come to him. This kind of supreme confidence is a form of performer's grace, and when Lewis finally gets to take over the show in the middle of Act 2, the grace becomes transcendent and we enter show-biz heaven. Singing and dancing "Those Were the Good Old Days," halting the show for a stand-up routine that's the best thing in it, he is just a trifle unearthly. He brings the mythical theatrical past with him, after all -- his parents were vaudevillians, and he is one of the few remaining denizens of the old, vulgar, knockabout, hard-working, glitzy, shameless tradition that used to epitomize American show business. The French have always adored him, so let's describe him with one of their phrases: monstre sacre, sacred monster. Behemoth. A unicorn. The last of his kind.

Damn Yankees, book by George Abbott and Douglass Wallop, words and music by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross.
Director, Jack O'Brien; original choreography by Rob Marshall, re-created by James Raitt; set, Douglas W. Schmidt; costumes, David C. Woolard; lights, David F. Segal; sound, Jonathan Deans; orchestration, Douglas Besterman; musical director, Robert Hirschhorn.
At the Kennedy Center Opera House through Jan. 12. Call 202-467-4600.

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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