Summoned from her home in Hell, she rises to stage level flat on her back, gorgeous gams pointing heavenward. ”Look what you’re missing up there,” she seems to say, and it sort of makes you feel sorry for God. She is Lola, the seductive antiheroine of Damn Yankees, the devil’s concubine who takes a black widow’s approach to ending her love affairs. And Lola, in a controversial new Broadway revival of the show, is Bebe Neuwirth. Barely recognizable as Cheers‘ uptight psychiatrist Lilith, Neuwirth tucks her raven black hair under a short-and-sassy platinum-blond wig, and she va-vooms through her Spanish- flavored showstopper, ”Whatever Lola Wants (Lola Gets),” like an aerobics instructor on Ecstasy. ”You can be appealing and not be innocent,” says Neuwirth, 35. ”Trust me on that.”
This is the first Broadway revival of the 1955 featherweight Faustian musical in which a regular middle-aged Joe trades his soul to the devil in exchange for a second youth and a swing at leading his favorite baseball team to glory. But it’s been a rocky return to Broadway for both Damn Yankees, which has been heavily revised, and for Neuwirth, who danced in numerous Broadway shows pre-Cheers. She’s suffering inevitable comparisons to the sizzling Gwen Verdon, who originated the role of Lola and immortalized her performance in the 1958 film. And New York’s critics haven’t disagreed so fiercely on a musical since well, since the last one opened. The New York Times‘ usually avuncular David Richards panned the show, dismissing Neuwirth’s ”thin and somewhat chilly performance.” But New York magazine’s famously cranky John Simon and his thesaurus went weak-kneed over the revival and Neuwirth’s ”timing, inflections, shading, and emphases to elicit frissons of delight as she plies her special brand of pliant implacability.”
The versatile Neuwirth doesn’t read reviews. She is, however, savvy enough to concede, ”This is Gwen’s role. I’m borrowing it for a while.” And Damn Yankees was hardly an untouchable masterpiece in the first place. Director Jack O’Brien revised it under the guidance of 106-year-old George Abbott, who cowrote the original book with Douglass Wallop. The result: Lola’s character has been strengthened and her sex appeal supplemented by a beefy, cartwheeling chorus of baseball players who romp on stage in towels. The devil (Victor Garber) now claims responsibility for the Edsel, and he punches a joke about history’s great lovers with the names Clyde Tolson and J. Edgar Hoover. ”It’s become a ’90s musical set in the ’50s,” explains Neuwirth.
Let the critics debate — the box office has declared Damn Yankees a hit. And it should play well against this spring’s competition: Rival revivals (Carousel and Grease), the sequel to The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, and a stage version of Beauty and the Beast. Most theatergoers paying $65 for orchestra seats won’t think twice about the rethinking of this rowdy little musical. And Cheers fans will be especially happy to see that Bebe finally got her butt off the barstool.