Thursday, June 03, 2010

World Premiere of "Johnny Baseball" - The A.R.T. Team Pitches a Perfect Game!

In a wonderful case of art imitating life, the doubleheader dramas of two perfect games played themselves out last evening in two venerable American cities. In Detroit, an imperfect call spoiled a perfect baseball game being pitched by the Tigers' young hurler, Armando Galarraga. With two outs in the 9th inning, first base umpire, Jim Joyce, erroneously signaled safe as Indians' hitter Jason Donald touched the first base bag a split second after Galarraga had tagged the sack with his foot. In a perfect world, the umpire would have gotten the call right and Galarraga would have completed the 21st perfect game in Major League Baseball history. A Greek tragedy, to be sure.

Meanwhile, 700 miles to the east, a perfect game was being tossed by the team that created and presented the new musical "Johnny Baseball" - a play that deals with some of the darkest and most imperfect chapters of baseball history. I wrote earlier about a preview performance that I had seen on May 22.

Prior Blog Piece about the Preview Performance

Last evening was the official Press Opening night, and I was pleased to be able to attend and to see the differences in the two performances. I had really enjoyed the preview performance. In a sense, it was like being invited into an artist's studio to watch the painter add the last few brush strokes to a canvas that would eventually be proclaimed a masterpiece. Last night, the masterpiece was complete, framed, signed by the artists, hung in the most appropriate gallery, and perfectly lighted to show off all of the masterpiece's chiaroscuro nuances and subtleties. And the results were perfetto! The crowd that gathered for the unveiling of this freshly-minted work of art had a buzz and electricity that rivaled that which one feels in the stands at Fenway just before the first pitch of a Red Sox-Yankees game.

The creative team that conceived of this project and midwifed it through its long gestational period have clearly treated this show as a labor of love. What comes across and sparkles like diamonds is the artists' love for the theater, for baseball, for the Red Sox, for justice and for the miracle that occurs when a perfectly told tale reaches out and grabs the hearts of the audience. That miracle occurred last night in my heart, and if the telltale streaks of tears running down the cheeks of the men and women sitting around me are a reliable barometer, I was not alone in experiencing a transcendent evening.

Richard Dresser and Willie Reale wrote the story, with Willie also supplying the lyrics to the songs; Willie's brother, Robert Reale, wrote the music. Diane Paulus, Artistic Director for the American Repertory Theater, directed this production. The result of the blending together of these singular talents is a collaboration as smooth as the legendary double-play combination of Tinkers-to Evers-to Chance. This team was backed up brilliantly with a set designed by Scott Pask that helped to transport the audience alternately to the fabled Green Monster at Fenway Park and to a North End bordello where patrons were encouraged to pay out their money to "fall in love for an hour." Lighting effects by Donald Holder made me think of the film, "The Natural." The baseball sounds and crowd noises, designed by Acme Sound Partners, added to the air of verisimilitude that permeated the performance space. Period costumes by Michael McDonald evoked just the right sense of nostalgia.

Let me talk about the cast - the starting line-up for this championship team. In my previous piece, I highlighted three of the principals:

"Burke Moses looks just like a young Babe Ruth, and when he runs around the bases, he channels the Babe's mincing steps with uncanny precision. Colin Donnell, as Johnny 'Baseball' O'Brien, is an Irish Tenor who could have walked right out of central casting or off the sands of the L Street Beach in South Boston. Stephanie Umoh as Daisy Wyatt is a delight - iridescent in beauty and incandescent in talent."

Let me also mention the fine work turned in by Charl Brown as the young Negro League pitcher, Tim Wyatt. Charles Turner as "Fan #9" (to say more about his character's identity would be to give away a wonderful plot twist) was paired throughout the show with Robby, played by Newburyport's own Erik March as a young and remarkably knowledgeable and prescient young Red Sox fan. This unlikely pair - Black and White, winter and springtime, innocent and jaded, hopeful and resigned - provide the narrative backbone for the telling of this story. The scenes unfold as Fan #9 tells Robby the real story of the curse that has prevented the Red Sox from winning a World Series for 86 years.

This play is at its core an ensemble piece, with fans in the stands functioning as a Greek Chorus with the most pitch-perfect Boston accents ever to grace a stage. Usually, an ensemble is lumped together when accolades are being given. If you will indulge me, I would like to single out each of them, beginning with the Casting Director, Stephen Kopel. Seldom do I feel that a cast is "perfect," but in the case of "Johnny Baseball," the removal of any one of these ensemble characters would leave the show bereft of a key ingredient. In addition to their roles as fans in the stands, each ensemble member portrays multiple characters with wonderful versatility and agility.

Jeff Brooks - Throughout the show, this obsessive-compulsive Red Sox fanatic bargains with God: "If only You let us score one more run, I will go back on my diet."

Joe Cassidy - A Mike O'Malley look-alike, Fan #4 has had Red Sox season tickets for years. Having lost his money and his marriage to his gambling addiction at the race track, the divorce settlement forced him to give one of his seats to his ex-wife. The bad chemistry between the two of them is both hilarious and poignant.

Paula Leggett Chase (no relation that I know of to The White Rhino) - Fan #8 sings a memorable and brilliant song, "Not Rivera," about her guilty pleasure as a Red Sox fan of being in love with Yankees closer, Mariano Rivera.

Kaitlyn Davidson - As Fan #6, she conducts a running feud with her mother. As Babe Ruth's nurse in the hospital in 1948, fending off his amorous advances, she is the foil for one of the show's most memorable lines. The Babe, emaciated from cancer and suffering from pneumonia, tells Daisy Wyatt, "It's not easy to coax a dame into a death bed."

Carly Jibson
- As Fan #5, she is the bitter ex-wife who taunts her ex seemingly with every pitch being thrown from the mound at Fenway. As a breathlessly out-of-shape Worcester Booster cheerleader, she is hilarious, finally collapsing into the audience. In last night's performance, she ended up at the feet of some special guests - legendary Red Sox left hander, Bill Lee, and his wife, Diana. To say that Bill and Diana loved the show would be an understatement, but I digress!

Robert McClure - Despite the actor's New Jersey roots, he plays a wonderful Red Sox Fan #3, simultaneously embracing his desire that "The Curse" be broken, and holding at bay his matrimonially-minded girlfriend of seven years who pleads for "hardware on her hand."

Kirsten Wyatt - Fan #7 wants nothing more than for "The Curse" to be broken so that her commitment-averse boyfriend will finally "take a knee" and pop the question.

Alan H. Green - Among other characters, Green portrays Willie Mays. His duet with Tim Wyatt, "See You in the Big Leagues," is one of the show's highlights.

Each ensemble member brings his own individual quirkiness or her own charming foibles. Together, they are pure magic. Perfect in every way.

The Reale brothers have outdone themselves with the music and lyrics. There are some singable and memorable melodies. There are no "throw away" songs. The combination of solos, duets and ensemble singing is offered in an ideal blend. Each musical number advances the narrative in a significant way, which speaks to great writing and great direction. Some of the lyrics are brilliant. The songs that still play in my head hours after the curtain fell include "Eighty-Six Years," "All I Have to Do," "Daisy Darling Why," Color Me Blue" and "Daisy's Letter." The musical numbers that really moved me and gripped my heart like a pitcher grasps a four-seam fastball are "Circle in a Diamond," "Errors" and the finale, "The Game of Baseball," a paean to America's game.

Have I convinced you that I loved the show? My fellow audience members were clearly transformed into fans, roaring their approval and jumping to their feet the moment the curtain calls began.

See this show, which will run through June in Cambridge at the A.R.T.'s Loeb Theater.

"God bless the Boston Red Sox!"

God bless "Johnny Baseball"



1 comment:

Major League Bride said...

I can't wait to see it. A musical story about baseball history - what a winning combination.