Niagara Gazette

April 3, 2014

REVIEW: Ellicott Creek Playhouse's 'Damn Yankees' a damn fine time

By Doug Smith
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — A cruel crusader cloaked in crimson, Cataract City comics connoisseur Paul Bene swoops onto the Ellicott Creek Playhouse stage like a firetruck on hooves, eyes a-gleam beneath prehensile eyebrows in search of souls to extinguish. Win or lose, “Damn Yankees” is his to command.

The Falls’ premiere purveyor of graphic literature, Bene draws an indelibly tough act to follow. Co-operation, that’s a different ballgame. Colleagues ricochet off him like doubles to the wall, and in less time than a Class AAA ballgame (same price, with better concessions), the fans head home smiling.

Humming, too. “Damn Yankees” has at least two scores in the musical-memory Hall of Fame — “You Gotta Have Heart” and “Whatever Lola Wants.” Director Fran Newton honors them, and the show, with a dictum conveyed in every locker room: Play within yourself and have fun.

Long before the “Evil Empire,” there was this ‘50s-novel fantasy about underworld influence, with an overlying love story and endorsement of virtue. “I Thought About the Game,” the baseball quartet harmonizes, recalling how its purity proscribed bad behavior. Yeah, right. Those were, as another song goes, “The Good Old Days,” if ever.

Beyond the cigarettes that appear to ignite at a finger-snap, Niagara Regional Theater Guild makes much magic, notably the cottage that switch-hits to clubhouse at the turn of a wheel, and the old fan’s transformation to young ballplayer. Newton and John Panepinto turn that as deftly as any double play ever chanced by Tinker and Evers.

Cassandra Grizanti gets both under and into the skin of slinky Lola, her solo “A Little Talent” belying her considerable skills. Kim Ehrenberg, director Newton and Panepinto create a three-part harmony in “A Man Doesn’t Know” that’s plaintive enough to provoke tear-duct rain delay.

Legendary scout Cy Williams insisted “it’s the little imperfections that make the game a thrill,” so: The five-piece Ellicott Creek Philharmonic (bravo to violinist Kathryn Ratka) outplays a few cleverer lyrics, the players’ spikes don’t match, the clubhouse could use more equipment, the major-league announcer sounds minor-league and Kansas City wasn’t even in the league then.

A show you can swear by, it runs through April 13, at 550 Ellicott Creek Rd., Tonawanda.     

Doug Smith has been covering theater since 1968, and baseball 20 years before that.