Johnny Baseball, music by Robert Reale, book by Richard Dresser, lyrics by Willie Reale. Directed by Gordon Greenberg.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
Show photos not downloadable
"A brotherhood of bastards."
The traditional musical is dead, but is nearly neatly resurrected in the Williamstown Theatre Festival’s latest production, "Johnny Baseball" a fictional recreation of a difficult period in the national pastime which results in the integration of the American League. Baseball-based musicals and plays have been an uneasy staple on Broadway for some years now going way back to the 1950's and "Damn Yankees" (hit: 1019 performances and 7 Tony Awards), "The First" about Jackie Robinson (flop: 37 performances), "Diamonds" in 1984 with a score by Kander and Ebb, Craig Carnelia, Jim Wann and others (flop: 122 performances), "National Pastime" in 2010 which closed in under two weeks; "Take Me Out" which dealt with gays in the game (hit: 355 performances and a Tony Award), "Fences" (hit and Pulitzer Prize winner); a new play about Mickey Mantle is slated for a debut next year; and now we have "Johnny Baseball."
"Johnny" has been tried out before and received a lukewarm reception. It reportedly has been revised and rewritten removing many elements that took away from the principal story and aggravated audiences. On the main stage of the theater in Williamstown it presents nicely and certainly leaves a good impression. However the marriage of fiction and non-fiction is a difficult combination and without reading the author’s notes an unsuspecting viewer might easily assume that this is all based on fact. Real people populate the stage: Babe Ruth, Tom Yawkey, Willie Mays, and others. These are not passing-through sorts of appearances, they are integral to the plot; the authors have woven them into the tapestry of the show.
Though there are 25 musical numbers in this show, it is not a modern through-composed piece. We have book scenes with dialogue. We have chorus numbers and dance numbers. There are solos, duets, trios and ensembles. The music is lively and sometimes jazz inflected, but in all a traditional musical score. Covering the period of 1919 to 1948, the music also advises us of both time and place; "The Shimmy-Shammy Whammy" moves from Harlem in the late 1920's to Paris in the 1930's as the heroine performs it, first as a solo and later in a more erotically staged number with two hefty dancers lifting her overhead. "See You in the Big Leagues" steps way out of period, harking back to the classic Ziegfeld Follies Gallagher and Shean duet.
Some of the songs are great: Daisy’s song " Mr. Moon," "Circle in a Diamond," sung by the title character and a young black pitcher he is coaching, "God Wouldn’t Mind," a song of passions for Johnny and Daisy. Then there are the duds: "I Thought About You" in which the tune and the rhymes are so predictable you could almost sing along by the second verse, and "As Long As There’s a Chance."
Half of what makes this show so worthwhile, though, is the collection of actors who are appearing in it. Tom McGowan’s Babe Ruth is superb. He brings to life the super-ego of baseball without missing a discordant beat as he does so. Roger Robinson’s Fan #9 narrates the events of the "actual" Red Sox Curse and turns out to be exactly who you think he’ll be but the actor brings so much pain and humor and sensitivity to this role that you want to reach out and hug the man in his final scenes.
Brooks Ashmanskas distinguishes himself in several roles include the Boston Red Sox owner tom Yawkey whose half-hearted, off-handed manner is so perfect for this character. Joe Cassidy gives former player and ultimate manager Mike Wolcott both a handful of sincerity and smattering of cynicism and the combination pays off well for him in the last half of the second act. Alan H. Green is infectiously charming as Willie Mays, even when he seems to be honestly threatening Tim Wyatt at their mutual tryout.
Derrick Baskin give a great amount of emotional instability to Tim. His discovery of the secrets of his birth is blushingly real and his follow-up scene is wonderfully played out as his audition takes over his bad humor and makes him touching, charming and modestly adorable. Andrew Kober is hilariously similar from role to role, including the French Emcee.
In the leads are De’Adre Aziza as Daisy and James Snyder as Johnny O’Brien (known as Johnny Baseball). Aziza is a dynamite vocalist and her acting, while slightly laid back for this role, is touching in her early, defensive scenes and not quite so effective in the last part of the second act where she needs to really grab the hearts of her audience. She becomes increasingly more beautiful, however, as she ages through the years of the play. Snyder also ages well, going from gawky to solid quite nicely. His spirited youth longing for a real baseball career devolves seamlessly into the more staid and respectful new father he never anticipated being. He sings well, with gusto and in a more sensitive rubato style as well. The two are genuinely well matched in this show and that helps a great deal.
On the production side all the talents employed here deliver the goods with style. Timothy R. Mackabee’s clever set is a fine match for Gregory Gale’s well-researched period costumes as lit by the talented Jason Lyons who even transforms the small Nikos Theater into a Fenway Park replica. Nevin Steinberg should bring down some of his side effects so that we can actually hear the singing going on over it.
Denis Jones’ choreography is generally funny in this show as its Spartan sense of need keeps it to little spurts of dancing, or cheerleading or rhythmic walking. Its appearance within the scene work directed by Gordon Greenberg is used wisely and well. Greenberg has the task here of weaving the fiction and reality bits into a cohesive whole life experience. He has taken that challenge and brought the play home with such a reality that I felt absorbed within the experience and that is a wonderful achievement in any show.
Traditional musical or not - it isn’t that easy to define this show - there was not one really memorable song in the score. I did not come out humming anything though I still find myself striving to remember a few of them. The show is good and enjoyable and definitely not a ground-breaker. But then, not every show needs to be that. Like this one, sometimes you just want to be entertained and also learn something. This show succeeds wonderfully on both those levels. I’d see it again. . .someday.
Johnny Baseball runs through August 3 on the Nikos Stage at the Williamstown Theatre Festival’s ‘62 Center for Theatre and Dance on the Williamstown College campus at 1000 Main Street in Williamstown, MA. For information and tickets, call the box office at 413-597-3400 or visit their website at www.wtfestival.org