note: entire contents copyright 2010 by Caroline Burlingham Ellis
Special to Theater Mirror
“Johnny Baseball,” a new musical that digs into the 86-year “curse” on the Boston Red Sox, is currently delighting audiences in Cambridge, Mass.
Composer Robert Reale (music) and Willie Reale (lyrics/story) are known in the theater world for a long list of credits, including Tony nominations for “A Year with Frog and Toad.” The brothers’ latest musical, written by Richard Dresser and directed by American Repertory Theater artistic director Diane Paulus, dissects a serious Boston failing while entertaining theatergoers with some delightful songs and the laughter of recognition.
“Johnny Baseball” starts right out poking fun at the myriad superstitions that explain why the Red Sox didn’t win a World Series between the 1918 success with slugger Babe Ruth and a certain day of glory in 2004. As the show opens, we see the diehard fans of 2004 huddled in the bleachers, begging for one more run (“Please God, don’t let the Yankees sweep us!”) and speculating about how their random actions in previous seasons caused the Sox to peter out. One fan, for example, has identified eating peanuts instead of hotdogs as seriously bad luck. Over the course of two acts, fans make promises to God that they will turn their lives around, get married, “give up the ponies,” donate “$1,000 to the Jimmy Fund or anyone doing charitable work” for one more run.
The most widely accepted reason for the curse, however, is that in 1920 owner Harry Frazee sold Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees. As everyone knows, with Ruth’s departure, the Curse of the Bambino descended.
But the show’s creators don’t buy it. They present a more serious cause. Weaving fact and fiction, they point to racial prejudice in Boston and remind playgoers that the Red Sox were the last team in the major leagues to sign an African American (fact, 1959). The fiction part: the Red Sox ruined the career of rookie pitcher Johnny O’Brien (Colin Donnell) for dating a black woman and decades later turned down the greatest pitcher of all time because of race (Tim Wyatt, affectingly played by Charl Brown). Although the Dodgers signed Jackie Robinson joined in the 1940s and other teams gradually integrated, Boston hung back, even turning down a chance to try out Willie Mays (fact).
The musical smoothly transitions back and forth between past and present, offering up the larger-than life personalities of Babe Ruth (Burke Moses) and Tom Yawkey (a devastating Jeff Brooks), the love story of Johnny and Daisy Wyatt (Stephanie Umoh, winner of a Theater World Award for her performance in “Ragtime” on Broadway), and the endearing nuttiness of devoted Red Sox fans. The chronology is held together by the narration of a 2004 fan, an elderly African American (Charles Turner) who strikes up a friendship with a white, ten-year-old boy who is a walking encyclopedia of baseball trivia (Erik March). Through their conversation, the real origin of the curse emerges. When it was revealed at a recent performance, the Sox-savvy audience gasped.
The show’s creators have done a fine job of anchoring the story in the minutia of Boston life past and present. The 2004 scenes feature a recreated Fenway stadium complete with neon Citgo sign, and the outfield wall known as the Green Monster. Other local references, such as an allusion to the Allston-Brighton streetcar in Johnny and Daisy’s love song “Maybe You’re an Angel,” provide more-historical detail.
The cast is uniformly strong whether playing fans in 2004 or barmen and floozies in the early 1900s. Carly Jibson is especially funny as a klutzy Worcester cheerleader in the “Worcester Boosters Fight Song” (P.S., authors, it’s pronounced “Wister” in these parts). And Jeff Brooks gave a hilarious performance as the coarse, partying Yawkey, who invites Johnny to hunt ducks (he loves that it’s you and the duck and “only one of you is gonna walk out alive”). A rousing Act II number called “Mr. Yawkey has a Vision” gives a hint of where things are headed for the auditioning black pitcher (“if Mr. Yawkey likes it, Mr. Yawkey gets it”).
There is sure to be a future life for, among other songs, the lyrical “Daisy Darling Why” and a clever dual-purpose number that goes “As long as there’s a chance, I’m happy. Any little chance will do”—also a moving ballad about fathers and sons (“Circle in the Diamond”).
The show ends with a slightly heavy-handed message about “The simple right to fall in love with anyone you please.” Heavy-handed or not, anyone who reads the Boston Globe knows that Red Sox owner John Henry has specifically acknowledged the team’s sorry past and that Boston’s racial issues still need work.
The show runs at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge through June 27. Call (617) 547-8300 for more information.
[ Caroline Burlingham Ellis has written theater reviews for TheaterMania, TheaterMirror, and Gatehouse Media. ]