Keegan Theater National PastimeBy Bob Ashby • Apr 20th, 2011 • Category: Reviews
Church Street Theater, Washington, DC
Through May 15th
$40/$35 Students and Seniors
Reviewed April 16th, 2011
In the 1930s, and for a long time afterwards, it was commonplace for radio announcers in the minor leagues to recreate baseball games. Based on a teletype feed, the announcers used sound effects and recorded crowd noises to make it sound to the audience like they were describing a road game in person, when in fact they were sitting in a studio. (There is a nice depiction of the technique in “Bull Durham,” still the best baseball movie ever made). The management and staff of Radio Station WZBQ, in Tony Sportiello’s and Al Tapper’s world premiere musical National Pastime, go this practice one better, creating studio broadcasts of games that are never played by a team that doesn’t exist. It’s all a gentle fraud to help a small town and its radio station survive the Great Depression.
National Pastime receives a spirited and entertaining production from the Keegan Theater. The evening’s issues have to do not with the performances, but with the play itself. While clearly intended to be, and largely succeeding in being, a “happy musical” – no post-modern irony here, thank you – it has its less happy aspects. The success of WZBQ’s scheme is premised on its listening audience being composed of naïve rubes gullibly swallowing whole the station’s preposterous stories. This rather mocking tone is unnecessarily condescending to people, and a region, that were anything but unsophisticated about baseball. While the play wants to be a valentine to baseball, it does not exhibit the loving understanding of, and respect for, the game found in places like “Bull Durham,” Take Me Out, or even Damn Yankees. The subtext the show, as in the concluding “We Are America” number, is that nothing, not even baseball, is as quintessentially American as a good con. This may be true (Barry Bonds, anyone?), but it doesn’t cause one to leave the theater humming.
The script is further hampered by its uneven emotional tone, veering from short sketches setting up a punch line to tepid romance to broad satire to patriotic pageant. The importance of various characters (such as Karen, a Chicago lawyer who first suggests the fake baseball team scheme) waxes and wanes as the evening progresses. There is a striking disconnect between the 1930s setting of the show and the style of much of its music, which belongs to later decades. Songs like “Suddenly Somehow” and “Hope You Are the Sun” would be far more comfortably at home in the musical universe of Little Shop of Horrors or Hairspray. With a few exceptions, like the periodic advertising jingles, the score provides little sense of the time and place of 1933 Baker City, Iowa.
There are some tweaks that could improve matters. Additional development of the characters of Marty and Betty Lou, currently somewhat underwritten, would be welcome. Deleting lines that are painfully anachronistic (like a weak joke about Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood and a reference to getting in on the ground floor of IBM, which was a strong nationally-recognized corporation long before 1933) would be a kindness. Simplifying the overdone hair styles and wigs of some of the female characters and replacing the blowzy showgirl costumes on the women who sing the advertising jingles (why would anyone working in a radio studio need a showgirl costume, anyhow?), would improve the look of the production.
All the members of the ensemble cast sing well, with Katie McManus as Karen, Dan Van Why as Joe Miller, and Autumn Seavey as Betty Lou making particularly strong impressions. McManus’s Karen not only gets some of the show’s best vocal moments but delivers with zest the book’s best zingers. This not being a show that aspires to realism, smart city girl Karen comes to love not only the homey virtues of small town America but, implausibly and remarkably quickly, falls for the dull station manager Barry (Brian Cali). Two pairs of performers also sparkle. Josh Stickin joins Van Why in playing Chicago convicts Karen brings in to impersonate ballplayers plus repo men plus representatives of Life Magazine and Major League Baseball who threaten to expose the fictional team. Tim O’Kane (Lawrence) and John Loughney (Marty), as the radio station’s baseball-challenged faux sportscasters, sing the score’s snappiest lyric, “Luck,” and Lawrence’s virtual assassinations of two nonexistent ballplayers are the evening’s funniest moments.
There is good balance between the singers and the seven-piece band, led by Jake Null, sited in a loft above the main playing space. The energy and pace of the production, directed by Mark and Susan Rhea, are strong throughout. While this is not a dance show, Kurt Boehm’s movement numbers are effective. The company flows smoothly through the single set representing WZBQ’s office and studio.
- Barry: Brian Cali
- Carla: Paige Felix
- Mary: Larissa Gallagher
- Marty: John Loughney
- J.P.: Timothy Lynch
- Karen: Katie McManus
- Lawrence: Tim O’Kane
- Darla: Carolyn Myers
- Betty Lou: Autumn Seavey
- Vinnie/Keller: Josh Sticklin
- Joe Miller/Rogers: Dan Van Why
- Directors: Mark A. Rhea and Susan Marie Rhea
- Orchestrations and Vocal Arrangements: Al Tapper, Larry Nachsin, Jake Null
- Music Director: Jake Null
- Choreographer: Kurt Boehm
- Set Designer: George Lucas
- Costume Designer: Kelly Peacock
- Sound Designer: Jake Null
- Light Designer: Allan Sean Weeks
- Stage Manager: Rich Ching
- Set Dresser/Properties Manager: Alexis Rose
- Assistant Costumer: Emily Riehl-Bedford
Disclaimer: Keegan Theater provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.
This article can be linked to as: http://washingtondc.showbizradio.com/goto/6463.
Bob Ashby has been an active participant in the Washington-area community theater scene since his arrival in town in 1975.