'Damn Yankees' and 'Miss Saigon' 

Underdog production

‘Damn Yankees’
Community Theatre
Woolly Auditorium
July 23

Community Theatre of Little Rock marks the end of its 50th season with “Damn Yankees,” and, as the song from the comedy musical suggests you’ve got to have, it certainly has heart.

The play is dated, though, and, owing to frequent major changes of scenery and the need for on-stage crowds, perhaps too ambitious for a group with such limited resources. Then again, “Damn Yankees” is all about the underdog making it, and the CTLR staging certainly makes one root for the underdog.

The play is about Joe (Rusty Wyrick), a middle-aged, diehard fan of the Washington Senators baseball team; the Senators were still playing when “Damn Yankees” premiered in 1955 and went on to earn eight Tony Awards, including one for Bob Fosse’s choreography (the play was revived on Broadway in 1994 and won another four Tony awards). Joe enters into a Faustian deal with the devil, here represented by a character named Applegate (John Crawford), in which Joe sells his soul in exchange for the chance to be young and play for the Senators and help them beat the Yankees in the race for the American League pennant.

But Joe finds that the exchange may not have been worth it (and he’s glad he forced Applegate to agree to an escape clause) when he realizes how much he misses his long-suffering wife, Meg (Tricia Spione).

Standouts in the play include Rachel Small as Lola, the temptress who, having long ago sold her soul to Applegate, is sent to convince Joe to forget Meg and give in to his new, cursed life. Lola’s role is one of the juiciest in the play (including one of its most famous songs, “Whatever Lola Wants”) and Small has more material to work with. She makes the most of her part and manages the trifecta — she can act, sing and dance. Small brings a sense of regret and sensuality as well as a complexity to the play that belies her age — she’s a senior at Little Rock Christian Academy.

Also notable is Dominique Holloway as Gloria, a reporter who hounds the “new” Joe after looking into the phony background that Applegate concocted. Holloway’s acting is fine, her dancing a bit stiff, but she is able to sing out clear as a bell and it’s a pleasure to hear. Spione’s singing as Meg is barely passable, but her acting is good and it’s no surprise she is an old pro who has been involved in local theater for years.

During Sunday’s matinee there were problems with the sound system that were distracting to both actors and audience. Wyrick’s Joe seemed a little worse for the wear; it’s difficult not to cut him some slack considering Joe is on stage for much of the show. Crawford as Applegate is such a ham that it’s a bit irritating until his solo number, “Those Were The Good Ole Days,” in which the role finally seems to catch up to the overplaying he’s given it. The chorus seemed much too slight for such a big play, but delivered vocally and seemed to be enjoying themselves. Be prepared for some unfortunate costume decisions, especially Joe’s beer belly and Sister Miller’s (Lorraine Maxwell) crazy wig.

The CTLR’s production is flawed, but it’s got all the heart you could ask for. It’s staged again this week, at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday at Woolly Auditorium on the Arkansas School for the Blind campus.

— Joy Ritchey

Pared down Saigon

Miss Saigon
Weekend Theater
July 21

The Weekend Theater’s production of Miss Saigon was well acted, decently sung, and a little drawn out. Director John Isner transformed one of the most successful, largest-scale productions of all time and cut and trimmed until it fit onto the small theater’s 10-foot circular stage. The cast of 17 did well representing the American occupation of Vietnam, starting in a strip club where a night with a girl costs about as much as a pack of smokes back home.

One of the most memorable songs, “The Movie in My Mind,” best shows the flip side to the war. Here the skimpily dressed Vietnamese women put on a great show seducing the Marines who throw around money like it is nothing in this poor country. The song allows for a glimpse into the bedrooms of the prostitutes as the strongest vocalist by far, Melissa Anderson, sings of what a perfect life in America would be like. The lyrics “In a strong GI’s embrace, flee this life, flee this place,” describe the goal of all the girls and what seems like everyone in Saigon — to find a way out.

The night continues as the Engineer (Ralph Hyman) introduces the virgin newcomer Kim (Kim Mai Drahaim), also known as “Miss Saigon,” who is bought by a GI for his friend Chris (John Haman), who is a little more tenderhearted than his womanizing friends.

Of course the two fall in love, and naive Chris thinks he can save Kim from what is left of her country by taking her back with him, but in the rushed evacuation he instead leaves her in Saigon, a single mom, until they meet again three years down the road.

The story is compelling but the chemistry between Haman and Drahaim was lacking. Their duets sometimes seemed too redundant and dragging.

The original production ran for 10 years after its London debut in 1989, primarily because of its technical complexity. The Weekend Theater’s two-and-a-half-hour rendition lacked that excitement in all but a few scenes.

It opens with almost the entire company, including the bar girls, on stage dancing, singing, and drinking, the girls wearing garter belts, corsets and fishnets; and the production ends, after being dragged through a doomed love affair, with gunfire. The beginning and ending were engaging, but almost everything in the middle seemed to move slowly. There was no dialogue, like in the original production, where every word is sung. At times this seemed a little awkward and forced, and toward the end became tiring.

This show is worth catching — if not for the few exciting scenes, then for the compelling story and award-winning soundtrack, especially if you are unfamiliar with it. Performance times are 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday this weekend and next. Tickets are $18 for adults and $14 for students and seniors. Call 374-3761.

— Amy Bowers



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