Johnny Baseball swings and misses

The cast of Johnny Baseball does its best with an entertaining but confusing mess
Petronella Ytsma

While leaving Johnny Baseball Friday night, I realized that whatever thoughts I had about the lead for my review — maybe a recollection of my two feeble years playing Little League, or missing most of game seven of the '87 World Series because I had to work before sneaking into the restaurant bar for the last inning — had fled. My only thought was how much of a wasted opportunity the whole affair was.

A solid director, talented cast, and brilliant crew slaved for two and a half hours over material that was at times boneheaded, tone deaf, and laughable in all the wrong ways. Instead of illuminating a shameful part of the game's — and the country's — recent past, it buries it beneath a confused story and mediocre score.

Oh, and it's about the Boston Red Sox. I hate the Red Sox. For decades, the only good thing about Boston getting into the playoffs was that they were going to botch it in some spectacular way. If you are ambivalent about the Red Sox — or worse, a fan — you may find more pleasure in the show, though the story will still be a mess.

Set in the fourth game of the 2004 American League championship series, the musical tells the supposed story of the "curse" of the Red Sox. You see, the team's losing streak wasn't because they sold Babe Ruth to the Yankess, or that they were just a terrible team for decades on end, it was because of a shameful incident in the 1940s.

The story actually begins in 1919, when an ace young pitcher named Johnny O'Brien joins the team. Babe Ruth takes a liking to the youngster and invites him out on the town. At a house of ill repute, Johnny sets his eyes on Daisy. The two hit it off, though he is white and she is black. Johnny's big head and his desire to toe the line eventually drive a wedge between them, but not before there's a new little ballplayer (though Johnny doesn't know that yet).

Act Two finds Johnny coaching a semi-pro team in Worchester, Daisy now a blues singer who found much of her success in France, and son Tim dreaming of a baseball career. Daisy gets Tim on Johnny's team. His success eventually earns him a tryout with the Red Sox, which, if you know the team's history, isn't going to go well.

The identity of the storyteller isn't much of a secret; neither are any of the other twists along the way. Your average game of Clue has more surprises than Johnny Baseball. Part of the problem is that book writer Richard Dresser never settles on what story he wants to tell. Is this about enjoying the game of baseball? About the game in post-World War I America? The game as the color barrier was broken? All these elements jostle for space, creating something so muddled it's hard to get a grip on the story.

Robert and Willie Reale's songs have a different issue. While a few of them are enjoyable, especially rabble-rousing tunes like "Brotherhood of Bastards" and "One More Run," a lot are rote, Broadway-aping numbers. There are the folk-sounding ballads, the broken-hearted blues, the "this is what's at the heart of the entire damn show, so listen" song ("Circle in a Diamond"). None of it is particularly memorable, at least for the music.

Where Johnny Baseball wins is with the home team. Director Doug Scholz-Carlson keeps the whole thing moving at a solid clip, never letting the action get bogged down or letting the audience think too much about what is going on.

There are a number of strong performances, led by Zach Curtis's towering Babe Ruth. Joshua James Campbell and Timotha Lanae make an engaging couple as Johnny and Daisy. They show their tender sides during the early scenes, as they fall in love in halting steps. It's completely natural and absolutely beguiling.

The balance of the cast does nice work as well, especially in the group numbers. A lot of credit goes to choreographer Jim Lichtscheidl, who adds a bit of oddball jazz to the familiar patterns of the game. Baseball is a game of ritual, both on the field and in the stands. That comes out brilliantly in the dancing.

Johnny Baseball may be a confused mess, but it's always an entertaining, confusing mess. I just wish all this effort could have gone toward building on my love of baseball, not making me temporarily hate the game.

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