Joe Namath as a New York Yankee?

Dam Yankees Musical starring Joe Namath and Eddie Bracken. Directed and choreographed by Frank Wagner for the Jones Beach Theater. With a burst of flame and a puff of smoke, football star Joe Namath has made his New York stage debut.

The fiery accouterments are entirely suitable, since Namath's vehicle is "Damn Yankees" -- wherein a middle-aged baseball nut sells himself to the devil so the Washington Senators will win the pennant for a change. Namath plays the supernatural whiz kid who leads the team to victory, then vanquishes his diabolical mentor for a happy ending in the nick of time.

Before the opening night, this production garnered an unusual amount of publicity, mostly centered on Namath. The press kindly played down the fact that he tried to launch a movie career several years ago with dim results. His onstage prospects don't look too much brighter, judging from his showing at the Jones Beach Marine Theater.

Namath is a likable performer, and that's important for the role of a dumb, pure, lovable Joe Hardy. Without question, he had the opening- night audience totally on his side, every step of the way.

But that's not enough. His acting was a lot flatter than his personality, and his dancing was more like organized walking. As for his singing -- this is a musical, after all -- it's best left undescribed. Major leaguer-cumcrooner Tony Conigliaro reminded us back in the '60s that sports and show biz are very different ball games. Namath needs a lot more time in training before his voice is ready to turn pro.

The rest of the production is more solid. Eddie Bracken is strong and sometimes very funny as the devilish Mr. Applegate, the tempter of the table, and Susan Elizabeth Scott is appealing as Lola, his right-hand person. Special credit goes to Alyson Reed as a spunky sports reporter. She acts with gusto, and dances up the proverbial storm. The chorus is first- rate in all the production numbers.

Perhaps to offset Namath's limitations, director Frank Wagner plays the production much closer to the audience than is customary at the Jones Beach Theater. By contrast with previous years, the result is almost intimate -- if such a word can be used for this vast amphitheater, which is impersonal under the best of circumstances.

Unfortunately, opening night was beset by acoustic problems: The voices were unevenly miked, and sometimes could barely be heard. Maybe it's unfair for Namath to be plopped onstage under such unconventional conditions. Then again, the sheer size of the place probably helps his performance by eliminating any need for subtlety. In any case, Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, Mo., is hardly a complex character. Namath simply fails to do much with him.

The show itself holds up pretty well after all these years. Such musical numbers as "Whatever Lola Wants," "Two Lost Souls," and "Heart" are as fetching as ever, and only "Who's Got the Pain" seems as hopelessly dated as the mambo craze that inspired it. The dialogue is often silly and many of the jokes are thin, but the "Shoeless Joe" production number was rousing, and so was "Those Were the Good Old Days," even though microphone problems sabotaged Bracken's bravura showmanship here. This is still a clever musical, even if the Jones Beach decision to keep the ballplaying entirely offstage -- including the climax of the plot -- was disappointing.

The Jones Beach Theater is such a peculiar showplace that some productions don't succeed simply because they aren't flashy enough to carry over such large outdoor distances: "Showboat" and "The Music Man" are examples. For all its failings. "Damn Yankees" joins such recent winners as "Finian's Rainbow," "Annie Get Your Gun," and even last year's "The Sound of Music." It's lively and tuneful, and it's the only place I know where you can see a quarterback do a dance in the locker room.

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