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7/11/08
Opening Night Magic
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Last night, my 11-year-old son and I went to opening night of Damn Yankees at City Center.

We went on a whim, opting to save money by grabbing a pair of $25 seats way up in the balcony. This is not a show that gets performed often nowadays—it’s not considered a brilliant work of music theater—but the Encores series, of which this show was a part, has a good track record, especially after last summer’s breakout success with Gypsy. Plus, there were some star names worth checking out: Sean Hayes (star of Will & Grace), Jane Krakowski (who plays Jenna Maroney on 30 Rock), and Cheyenne Jackson (currently starring in Xanadu).

This morning, I read a couple of reviews, including Charles Isherwood’s in the New York Times, which called it “a little pizzazz deficient. The bulk of the critics seem to have concluded that Damn Yankees isn’t in the same league as Gypsy—no home run. And it’s probably not; it’s entertainment on the light side, though to my ears the score holds up remarkably well after more than 50 years.

I am often struck by the disconnect between audience response and critical response. From where we sat in the balcony, people were SCREAMING when Sean Hayes, as the devil Applegate, played the piano in his big second-act number, “Those Were the Good Old Days.” We didn’t see it coming—that’s the wonderful surprise of opening nights. You could see Hayes, looking into the crowd near the end of the number, as if trying to decide whether to improvise more, and that’s when I remembered that despite all his television creds it was his New York theater debut, and he may have been wondering just how far to go with this opening-night theater crowd. Now, I know that point of a critical review is not to describe the roar of the crowd—heaven knows audiences don’t necessarily recognize or react right away to what’s most meaningful about a performance. But to me, it’s a problem if, when you read a performance review, you feel you’re intruding on a private conversation between the critic and five of his jaded best friends, who all have already seen and dissected every previous performance of whatever is being reviewed. What happened during that number was a big part of that opening-night performance. Even if it left the critics cold (Hayes doesn’t have the world’s most amazing singing voice), a mention of the way he played to the theater would have been enlightening.

So, from my standpoint, Damn Yankees opening night was an immensely enjoyable evening that was more than the sum of its parts. Old-fashioned though it may be, my son loved it. Jane Krakowski is no Gwen Verdon, who created the role of Lola, but she is funny and goofy, and she relaxed considerably as the show moved along. Cheyenne Jackson, as Joe Hardy, is vocally very appealing; his slower, more understated numbers “Near to You” and “A Man Doesn’t Know” gave the show some core and depth of feeling. The orchestra, which was part of the stage set, was the show’s major asset, playing its heart out in the mambo-heavy, vamping score.

I’m always reminded during these disconnects of something a restaurant consultant once said to me, which essentially was that “it’s not about the food,” meaning that you can be the world’s most brilliant chef but if you don’t consider the overall experience, such as location, atmosphere, etc., you risk losing your customers. Danny Meyer of Union Square Cafe fame is kind of the guru of this concept, promoting the goal of a restaurant experience as “overall happiness.” I’d venture to say that if a Meyer-like critic were at City Center last night, he’d vouch that people left the theater much happier than when they arrived.

The other weird thing about New York theater opening nights is the collision of two crowds: the “in” crowd that likes to be the first to experience all things cultural, and the ordinary folks, hoofing it up to the balcony with their $25 tickets. I’ve sat in press seats plenty of times, but as a hopeless optimist I think I probably belong with the ordinary folks. I just love the opening-night jitters and excitement and buzz, which last night was almost deafening by curtain time. Last night, I certainly wasn’t dressed for the opening-night occasion—I came straight from work—but all around there were people dressed up properly, including two cute girls with their dads in lovely little dresses, and a little boy in a jacket and khakis.

There’s a final reason I love New York opening nights: you never know who you might see. My son is slightly obsessed with Tina Fey (I think it’s all the American Express commercials, as he’s not old enough to watch 30 Rock or even know Saturday Night Live). So we are standing on the sidewalk before showtime last night and I’m giving him the lowdown about New Yorkers and how you have to be cool and not stare if you see anybody famous. And he pipes up with, “Maybe we’ll see Tina Fey!” I told him I doubted it, but every time a brunette walked up, he jokes, “There’s Tina Fey—made you look!”

Well, this had been going on about three minutes, when who should come down the sidewalk but … Tina Fey, except we weren’t positive, because we were trying so hard not stare. We chatted about it before the show, during intermission, and after we left. Then this morning I went to the theatermania.com website, which officially photographed the postshow party, and sure enough, it was Tina Fey, wearing the exact same blue suit in the photo that we saw her wearing last night.

Did I say I love opening nights?

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SundayArts is made possible in part by First Republic Bank and by the Rubin Museum of Art. Funding for SundayArts is also made possible by Rosalind P. Walter, The Paul and Irma Milstein Foundation, The Philip & Janice Levin Foundation, Elise Jaffe and Jeffrey Brown, Jody and John Arnhold, and The Lemberg Foundation. This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council. Additional funding provided by members of THIRTEEN.