Yes, I am a fan of the Boston Red Sox, but you don’t need to be one in order to love “Johnny Baseball”. All you need is a heart.
Tonight, Chuck and I attended the fourth night of the world premiere of this musical at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge. It was terrific! It tells the tale of the Boston Red Sox from 1900 right up until they miraculously turned the corner in Game Four of the 2004 American League Championship Series.
The creative team of Robert Reale, Willie Reale and Richard Dresser (originally from Holden!), with the able direction of Diane Paulus, manage to compress a century of baseball, culture and racism into the story of two fictional characters: Johnny O’Brien, the outstanding Red Sox pitcher who, so humbly embodies the sport, he becomes known as Johnny Baseball and Daisy Wyatt the African American blues singer who captures his heart. Over the course of two fast paced hours we come to understand the real reason for the curse which kept the Red Sox from winning a World Series for 86 impossibly long years. And we face head on the bigotry which led to the Red Sox being the last baseball team to integrate with the hiring of Pumpsie Green in 1959 - twelve years after Jackie Robinson broke that barrier in 1947.
“Johnny Baseball” is creatively but lightly staged to perfection. Little more than a set of bleachers, the Fenway Park sign, the Green Monster and a few tables and chairs frame each scene. (The stagehands deserve kudos for their seamless and unobtrusive work.) The lighting, coupled with the thrust configuration of the Loeb Drama Center created focus and intimacy with the cast. Nearly all of the members of the ensemble play multiple roles. Happily, the cast is filled with powerful, lovely voices. Despite perhaps three brief microphone glitches, the sound was solid tonight, with the music and voices complementing each other; never competing. Costuming was detailed and evocative of each era represented and added to the ease of transitions as the storyline progresses through the decades, with repeated cuts back to the pivotal Game Four in 2004. Yes, there is a touch of “Field of Dreams” and “The Natural” in “Johnny Baseball”, but the show is unique. (Oh how I want to tell the entire story in detail, but I don’t wish to ruin any plot twists and surprises!)
From the moment you arrive and staff in Red Sox jerseys take your tickets, while another “hawks” the program; to the sausage cart on the patio at intermission, the A.R.T., under the blessedly accessible artistic direction of Diane Paulus, echoes the atmosphere and excitement of Fenway Park. After the opening number “86 Years” I found myself smiling and thinking: “The trip was worth it just for this number.” But “Johnny Baseball” held and even raised the bar through both acts. By the time the full company sang the final number “The Game of Baseball” I was in tears.
The entire cast is to be commended for their talent, clarity and passion:
Alan H. Green
Paula Leggett Chase
They deserved the standing ovation we gave them. They also deserved a full house!
“Johnny Baseball” is playing at the A.R.T. through June 27, 2010. Treat yourself and get tickets now!
P.S. Our beloved Boston and Southern New England accent is so often played too broadly or just plain mangled in television shows and movies, that Dialect Coach Nancy Houfek deserves three cheers for helping the performers get it right!