This, to be honest, was something of a surprise, especially considering the pair's introductory scene. Joe is an aching, middle-aged man who sells his soul for baseball stardom. Meg is his long-suffering spouse. And it takes you a moment to accept the pairing, because whenever Joe endearingly refers to his wife as "old girl," you don't know what the hell he's talking about - the poised, beautiful Nicole Horton might read as older than your standard ingénue, but she's nobody's idea of an "old girl."
Yet Engelson and Horton play marrieds with so much sweetness and true affection that they lend the whole production a radiant glow. When Engelson sings a love ballad to the wife he's leaving, or when Horton laments the man she lost, the sense of regret is powerful, yet subtly presented, and it transcends the work's often flippant tone; although they share only a few scenes at the start, you really want to see these two reunited in the end. In roles that could be easily be perceived as throwaway, Engelson and Horton are just wonderful.
The rest of Damn Yankees will have to content itself with being very, very good. Donald Bremmer's staging of numerous numbers - especially "Shoeless Joe" and "Whatever Lola Wants" - is delightfully acrobatic, which befits the subject matter, and he brings out the musical-comedy pizazz in his cast. Though I'm not crazy about the character of Applegate in general - with his cornball jokes and predictable "zaniness," he's just too damned Jerry Lewis for my tastes - Jay Berkow knows the audience loves him and happily gives them the line deliveries they love him for. Patrick Stinson is a touching Joe Hardy (and a great physical match for Rob Engelson), and in the role of Lola, Katherine Walker Hill's performance delight is as evident as ever; if she's not having the time of her life on the Clinton stage this summer, she's sure fooling us.
In this Damn Yankees, though, everyone seems to be having a blast. As the motor-mouthed baseball fanatic Sister, Sandee Cunningham is so ferociously funny that half of her exit lines earn deserved applause, and Chris Amos and Craig Merriman are fantastically vibrant as two of Hardy's fellow ballplayers; their rendition of "The Game" is a joyous Act II opener. (As a male vocal ensemble, by the way, the Senators sound superb together.) A cast this fine couldn't help but make Clinton's Damn Yankees a fulfilling evening of musical comedy; that the show is as emotionally fulfilling as it is just makes the experience all the sweeter. You gotta have heart, indeed.
Damn Yankees runs through July 24. For tickets or more information, visit (http://www.clintonshowboat.org).