Park Square Theatre in downtown St. Paul has opened its doors to make room for the regional premiere of “Johnny Baseball”. When opening my program, the first line I read was “Doing new work is always a risk.” I commend the theater for taking one. The question is, did it work?
“Johnny Baseball” was premiered in 2010 at the American Repertory Theatre in Boston. Since then it was workshopped twice. First in New York and then Seattle. The creative team: Composer Robert Reale, Lyricist and Story writer Willie Reale and Book/Story writer Richard Dresser were at Park Square molding and changing pieces up until opening. Songs and lines were added and cut. To me it seems the piece is still evolving, leaving the show to be a base hit, but not a home run.
When reading the summary of the show it focused on the “Curse of the Bambino”. The opening song “Eighty-Six Years” showed Red Sox fans cheering and explaining how they should have never sold Babe Ruth. Since they did, they were now under a curse. I thought, this will be a show completely about baseball, but I was wrong. Just as we are starting to invest in Johnny (a young, rising pitcher) he meets a girl, Daisy. They fall in love and matters get worse due to the fact that she is black and he is white. The show takes place in the 1920’s so racial inequality is at its height. One night after a fight, she leaves him. In the second act we are thrown a curve ball (or maybe not) when Daisy reveals in a letter that she has been raising a boy for over twenty years. That boy being, dun, dun, dah, Johnny’s son. He too is a baseball player like his dad. All the while we are learning the curse is not due to Babe Ruth, it is more about the racial factor.
In my opinion, there were far too many plots taking place: Johnny the baseball player, Babe Ruth and his contribution to the sport, Daisy and Johnny’s love life, a son estranged from his father and then there’s Willie Mays. It was too hard to invest in one story because there were multiple things taking place. I was unsure what type of audience member they were trying to attract: baseball fans, theater buffs, lovers of romance, etc. However, the audience seemed to enjoy it. They laughed at all the jokes and awkward moments between Johnny and Daisy (there were many). Plus, we all got to stand up and sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” before the start of the second act which was great fun.
The big company numbers were put together well and the lyrics were catchy. Timotha Lanae who played Daisy had a beautifully soulful voice. Her song “Color Me Blue” was strong but I was waiting for her to go “Dreamgirls” on me. No doubt her voice can pack heat, so I wished she would have let ‘er rip and hit it out of the park. I absolutely adore Josh Campbell’s voice who played Johnny. Unfortunately, in this show I did not feel he was able to showcase his range. I much preferred him in the second act when he had aged some years. His tone was much richer then and he seemed to identify more with this side of his character. Kasono Mwanza who was a vendor, ensemble member and most notably, Willie Mays, did a fantastic job. His facial expressions, dancing skills and singing voice were great. Everything he did seemed genuine and I couldn’t help but watch him. He sang a duet called “See You in the Big Leagues” which was one of my favorite numbers.
This show may appeal to a broader audience than your typical musical theater lover due to its ties with baseball. Instead of seeing a well known show, check out a new one and decide for yourself if its a home run or base hit. The show is playing now through February 10th at Park Square Theatre. For tickets and information: http://www.parksquaretheatre.org/www/index.php