note: entire contents copyright 2001 by G.L. Horton
"The Curse of The Bambino"
Book and lyrics by David Kruh
Music by Steven Bergman
Directed by Spiro Veloudos
"The Curse of the Bambino" is a home town effort to lure at least Red Sox fans, and preferably all baseball lovers, into the Lyric Stage of Boston for a musical tribute to their mutual obsession. Thus far it seems to be succeeding in its lures--- the premiere's run has been extended into June to accommodate more of the Fenway Park regulars. So I have to be up front about this: I'm not a Red Sox fan. Truth to tell, I dislike all professional sports --- they seem to me to channel basic impulses into forms that are personally and socially harmful. However, I am a fan of musicals --- which can take some of those same mammalian impulses and transmute them to sweetness and enlightenment. I like and admire "Damn Yankees", not just for giving me some notion of what it feels like to be under the spell of Baseball, but also for giving Baseball Fans some notion of what the consequences might be if their dreams of conquest came true. When a small theatre like the Lyric Stage mounts the world premiere of a musical with at least the potential to be a minor league "Damn Yankees", I'll be there rooting for it, eager to stand up and cheer. "Curse of the Bambino" is full of semi-clever ideas and good intentions. But I can't cheer for it: it's a musical only a Sox fan could love.
Because I've lived in Boston for thirty years, I can't help but know about the Curse. Back in 1920, after Babe Ruth led the Sox to three World Series wins, Sox owner Harry Frazee sold the champion slugger to the team's arch rival, the Yankees. Ever since, Sox fans say, there's been a curse on the home team. They play like champions until the end of the season, then fall apart in some heartbreaking and spectacular fashion. So what's the how and why of this curse? What does it all mean? The show's creators, Kruth and Bergman, never say. After three years of work, the "Bambino" team has crafted what amounts to a series of cues for cute derivative songs, performed sketch comedy fashion by pleasant people who seem to be talented enough that they could play real characters with conflicts and relationships who also sing and dance -- if only the script gave them the opportunity.
The opening frame scene is set in 1986: a Sox fan (Derek Stearns) is watching the 10th inning of game six of that accursed Series vs the Mets on television, while giving running commentary to his basinetted son as each Met batter steps to the plate. A barbershop quartet of Royal Rooters materializes behind the Fan, in straw hats and raccoon coats. We're flashing back to 1919, and as soon as the quartet can change costumes and accents we find ourselves in a working class bar called the Third Base ---"the last place you stop before you go home". Now the quartet of Brahmin college boys becomes a quartet of immigrants, one Irish (Brent Reno), one Italian (Britton White), one Polish (Joseph Seriani), one Russian (Peter Carey) - all devoted to the Red Sox. For a moment it looks as if this is to be a story about how sports fandom fuels the Melting Pot and makes Americans of us all -- but then Stearns enters as Steve Waterman, the Pole's Americanized brother who has assimilated enough to rise to being business manager of the Sox.
Suddenly an old fashioned plot begins to form: a lone widow woman looking for work, one Betty Danvers (Eileen Nugent), enters the all male world of the Sports Bar to rest her weary feet, and Steve is so touched by her brave beauty that her offers her a job as the Red Sox' accountant. This gives us a Hero and his Love Interest, right in the office of Sox owner Harry Frazee (R.C. Jacobs) at about the time Frazee is going to decide to trade the Babe. Frazee seems a nice enough guy, but maybe he's not a real Baseball Man: rumor is his real passion is for producing musical comedy on Broadway, and basking in the smiles of the female Stars. What will the lovers discover about Frazee, or the Babe? What will they do about what they discover? Will conflicted loyalties push them together, or pull them apart? Don't ask. The Plot makes no sense, and while the performers are charming, there's no reason we should care about any of the cardboard characters. The Babe himself appears in the person of J.H. Williston, but what he is given to say and do doesn't amount to a bag of roasted peanuts.
The Babe doesn't want to leave his fans in Boston, but he is looking forward to a lot more money and night life in New York. The Babe's fans are mad as hell that he's leaving, but they don't blame the Babe for joining the enemy in the form of Colonel Jacob Ruppert's Yankees, and they won't take out their anger at Frazee on the Home Team. Just to be sure there is nobody at all to hate, John Davin's Ruppert is just about the sweetest smoothie of a magnate imaginable, and Our Heroine's uncle, to boot.
What we are supposed to care about here is the our team the Sox, the joy of vicarious winning and the addictive sweet sorrow of defeat. We have to bring that Real Baseball Person passion with us to the theatre, though, because all that happens in the show is that a list of facts re: the Sox' record is recited while historic photos of Sox players are projected onto the Green Monster backdrop and parody ditties proclaiming the fan's adoration of the team are performed in the styles and costumes and choreography of pop groups associated with each successive era in which the curse manifests itself:swing, doo-wop, psychedelic, disco....... The nostalgic passions associated with these sounds and images serve as a substitute for passions engaged in the present and worked through on the stage.
The show ends up back in 1986, with the father suffering through each tick of the clock until the famous ball flub becomes the most spectacular instance of the fan crushing curse. After which, father and fans pull themselves together to dream once more of "Next Year". Spiro Veloudos's staging patterns are generally brisk and visually pleasing, and Ilyse Robbins' choreography is much more amusing than any of the jokes in the script-- especially her "Fiddler" parody for "The Beisball Manifesto" and her jaunty "Baseball Man", routine for the team owners, huge Jacobs and tiny Davin, which exploits the physical contrast between two elderly gentlemen without depriving them of grace or dignity. I found "Face the Music", where a quartet of reporters sings aggressively against the individual lines of Steve, Betty, and Frazee, the most interesting number in Bergman's score; but although not derivative of a familiar pop tune like the rest, this number too was a reprise-- of a similarly aggressive press chorus sequence from Bergman's earlier musical premiere, "Jack the Ripper". Familiarity doesn't necessarily breed contempt, and there were plenty of smiling faces in the crowd exiting the Lyric. It appears that to lovers of baseball whose adolescent identity was shaped by the pop styles of the era in which they came of age, this "Bambino" is an engaging evening. But if, like me, you find baseball boring and cookie cutter show crafting annoying, two and a half hours of "The Curse" is tedium squared.
Newton, Mass. 02460
dt> "The Curse of The Bambino" (till 10 June)