As strange as it may seem to members of Red Sox Nation, Johnny Baseball is the product of collaboration between one long-suffering Sox fan (playwright Richard Dresser) and two New York Yankees fans (composer Robert Reale and lyricist Willie Reale). Following the 2003 playoff collapse when the Sox fell to the Yanks, the three came together to conjure up a story that could explain how and why this sort of thing has happened over and over in the team's history. In a major diversion from accepted lore, Dresser and the Reale brothers assert that the infamous curse afflicting the hometown team is not a consequence of selling Babe Ruth, the "Bambino," to the Yankees, but rather is penance for the racism that resulted in the Red Sox being the last major league baseball team to sign an African-American player to their roster.
Choosing to blend fact and fiction, the creative trio focuses on three orphaned souls: Johnny O'Brien (Colin Donnell), a blazing fastball pitcher destined for stardom on the 1919 Sox; his idol, Babe Ruth (Burke Moses); and Daisy Wyatt (Umoh), a beautiful, talented African-American blues singer. Their intertwined journeys cover a thirty-year span and parallel changing mores in the society at large. The historical scenes are played out as flashbacks from Game 4 in the 2004 American League playoffs between the Red Sox and Yankees at Fenway as the bleacher fans ride a roller coaster of emotions dependent upon the fortunes of their heroes. An elderly African-American man, referred to as Fan 9 (Charles Turner), tells young Robby (Erik March) that he is the only one who knows the real reason for the Curse and goes on to recount the story of Johnny and Daisy.
The Babe takes the naïve kid from Worcester under his wing on and off the field. At a Boston night spot, Johnny hears Daisy sing and falls in love with her, ignorant to the societal realities they will face. When Red Sox owner and theatrical producer Harry Frazee dangles a New York vaudeville contract in front of the aspiring vocalist in an attempt to break them up and placate fans who find their mixed race relationship distasteful, Daisy understands that she must accept the offer to protect Johnny's career. However, after she leaves him, he is never the same pitcher and fails to take the team to the championship. The second act leaps ahead to 1948 when Johnny is managing a minor league team and receives a letter from Daisy asking him to help her son get his break as a pitcher. At this juncture, the racial element comes barreling to the fore as Tim Wyatt (Charl Brown) blows away the Red Sox brass at his tryout, only to be informed that he lacks the talent (wink, wink) to make it in the big leagues. In his rage and grief, the disgruntled young man invokes a curse against the team that persists for the next fifty-six years.
Meanwhile, the latter day bleacher denizens (Fans #1 through #8) live out their frustrations and personal struggles while waiting for the worst to happen. The temperature drops, the game goes into extra innings, and their lives virtually hang on the outcome. Everyone in the audience knows what will happen, but there is an aura of tension and suspense, nonetheless, until the radio call of the moment when David Ortiz slugs his walk-off home run in the twelfth inning. It still feels good, even in a dramatized account.
Conveying the angst and the ecstasy of the diehard fans is one of the things that the writers and director of Johnny Baseball get right. However, my companion was disturbed by her perception that the celebration when Big Papi won the game was too low-key. She felt that they should show greater exuberance to more accurately reflect the emotions of that dramatic night. Attention to this kind of detail is part of the DNA of Red Sox fans and that is the challenge that Paulus, Dresser and the Reales are up against. As I see it, the segments that take place in 2004 at Fenway Park generally ring true because they don't veer far from fact, but every fan will have their own opinion.
Apart from the local angle, there is sufficient drama and conflict to make a worthy stage play, especially considering the pervasive racism represented in both major league baseball and the nation. There are plot points that are predictable and the depth of the treatment of the racism issue is uneven. Turning it into a musical makes Johnny Baseball far more entertaining, especially when the songs advance the story and flesh out the characters as they do here. If you don't know the Red Sox saga, you will after hearing the fans sing "Eighty-Six Years," detailing a litany of lowlights, and you'll gain a heartfelt understanding of the psyche of the fans from "As Long As There's A Chance." A couple of the songs are self-conscious treacle, but, for the most part, the musical numbers offer a good variety of style and tempo and are both well sung and well staged. Kudos goes to Choreographer Peter Pucci and to the eight-piece orchestra conducted by Tim Ray.
Much of the weight of the show rests on the athletic shoulders of Donnell. He is a likeable Johnny, but can only do so much with the thinly written younger version of his character. His older iteration is more solid and world weary, therefore more convincing. However, Donnell puts across his solos with a lovely choirboy voice and blends harmoniously with Umoh. Daisy has a couple of great tunes, especially the sultry "Color Me Blue," making it clear that Umoh's voice is better than ever. She sings with a maturity or seasoning acquired since she last graced a local stage. Their vocal chemistry surpasses that of their dialogue, but they make an appealing couple.
Moses does a great job playing the larger than life Ruth and really nails his signature home run trot. He doubles as Fan #1 and brings a vibrant presence to the bleachers, as well. Brown has a sweet voice and is one half of an energetic duet with Alan H. Green (as Willie Mays) in "See You in the Big Leagues." With the exception of the leads, Turner and March, all of the members of the ensemble play multiple roles, appearing as townspeople, Frazee's men, other ballplayers, or Tom Yawkey and his cronies, as well as the bleacher fans. They authentically capture the essence of those long-suffering yet hopeful folks.
Scenic Designer Scott Pask and Costume Designer Michael McDonald combine their talents to evoke the old-time Boston and the 2004 Fenway Park. The bleachers set can be split in half or rotated manually as needed to move the action outside the park, to a train station or to a nightclub. The fashions of the townspeople in the 1919 scenes are meticulously tailored, while the bleacher bums are dressed in Red Sox gear, including the wearing of the so-called rally caps. The piece de resistance is the stunning cocktail dress worn by Daisy at the end of the first act. Donald Holder successfully meets the challenge of bright lights for the ball games and sultry lighting for the club scenes, and joins with Acme Sound Partners to provide special effects for the imposition and the removal of the Curse.
It is exciting to have a world premiere in our own backyard and the ante is upped considerably by the subject matter. Paulus seems undaunted and has helped her cause by bringing the gastric delights of the ball park to the theater, creating a total baseball experience. More importantly, she has smoothly guided a large cast playing multiple roles through more than two dozen musical numbers in three eras and never loses sight of the driving force underlying the story. Ultimately, it is a love story, but not exclusively the one about Daisy and Johnny. It is, first and foremost, about the love of the game, the love of the fans for the team, and the team's love for the members of Red Sox Nation.
Directed by Diane Paulus, Music by Robert Reale, Lyrics by Willie Reale, Book by Richard Dresser, Story by Richard Dresser and Willie Reale; Scenic Design, Scott Pask; Costume Design, Michael McDonald; Lighting Design, Donald Holder; Sound Design, Acme Sound Partners; Musical Arrangements, Bruce Coughlin; Vocal Arrangements/Musical Director, Wendy Bobbitt Cavett; Conductor, Tim Ray; Production Stage Manager, Chris De Camillis; Choreography, Peter Pucci
Cast: Colin Donnell, Stephanie Umoh, Charl Brown, Burke Moses, Jeff Brooks, Robert McClure, Joe Cassidy, Alan H. Green, Carly Jibson, Kaitlyn Davidson, Kirsten Wyatt, Paula Leggett Chase, Charles Turner, Erik March
Performances through June 27 at American Repertory Theater, Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle Street, Cambridge, MA. Box Office 617-547-8300 or www.americanrepertorytheater.org.