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All Things Entertaining and Cultural

National Pastime — Bucks County Playhouse

untitled (59)The loopy plot throws all kinds of curves, few of which sidle over home plate for a strike, but Hunter Foster’s production of “National Pastime,” a world premiere musical at Bucks County Playhouse, survives, and even wins its ultimate game, because of the good will and high spirits of the cast, the bounciness of Albert M. Tapper’s score, witty choreography by Lorin Latarro, and a tone of screwball silliness that pervades the show and renders it consistent, entertaining fun.

“National Pastime” in set in the 1930s, and it can claim close kinship to musicals from that time. “Showboat” and “Porgy and Bess” aside, pre-“Oklahoma” musicals featured far-fetched stories that often found lead characters posing as Mexican señoritas, pretending they were rich when they were poor and vice versa, flying airplanes to Rio, and engaging in all kinds of hijinks that led to songs composers like Rodgers, Kern, Porter, Youmans, Berlin, and Gershwin hoped would become hits and ended with a guy and gal, or several guys and gals, tying the knot after a thorny courtship. Plot didn’t matter as long as the tunes were sassy and the ballads wrung hearts. Romance was a joke that came to a happy ending after the prickly couple traded barbed insults, cleared up a dozen misunderstandings, and booked the preacher.

Would that Tony Sportiello’s script for “National Pastime” was as logical and cogent as some of the 30s gobbledegook. Sportiello takes his story in many directions trying to find a route to the end. By “Pastime’s” ninth inning he hasn’t quite defeated his book’s blatantly flimsy implausibility, but with all Sportiello’s faults, you love his show still.

Thank Foster, Latarro, and the cast for that. In all phases of “National Pastime” besides the book, youthful energy abounds. You like the characters even if you don’t believe half of care about their predicaments. Or shrug at potential problems because Sportiello resolves them so quickly and facilely. You find the spunk of Kelli Maguire, Stephanie Gibson, and Matthew Bauman engaging. And you appreciate the giddily vigorous pace at which Foster moves the show and peppers it with Latarro’s sharp and amusing dance numbers.

“National Pastime” is one of those shows that work and keep a smile on your face even as you’re aware of how bad it is, or how much work it needs. Foster, who has not been among my favorite directors, and who has been a detriment to shows he’s helmed, finds and sticks with a formula that accents the madcap nature of the show and gives each performer the chance to shine and the audience its money’s worth.

As its title implies, “National Pastime” involves baseball although it’s more about radio, the Great Depression, a mismatched couple, and ambitious dreams.

It’s 1933, the year Franklin Delano Roosevelt takes the Presidency from Herbert Hoover, and the folks of Bay City, Iowa are sorely affected by the Depression. Tapper’s first song explains their plight by revealing Bay City is the home of Iowa farmers, and few of them can afford to buy their own wheat.

Businesses and factories are closing in town, farms are failing, and “National Pastime’s” male lead, Barry, needs to find a way to keep afloat Bay City’s only radio station, which is losing advertising revenue and cannot afford to buy the national programs with Jack Benny, Bob Hope, and the like that have much of the United States entertained despite the crushing economy. Baseball was once a great profitmaker for WZBQ, but the Bay City minor league team, the Cougars, named after the town’s Cougar Lake, have disbanded, and Barry can’t afford the license to broadcast Chicago or St. Louis games, even in simulation.

Barry was bequeathed his 50% share of WZBQ in its founder’s will. His problems increase when the station’s other half-owner, Karen Sloan, the founder’s estranged daughter and a lawyer from Chicago, swoops in, announces WZBQ a bust, and says she wants to sell or close the station as soon as possible. Barry begs for, and receives, a 90-day reprieve. Karen grants it with the ultimatum he has to show a growth-producing plan to her by then or she’ll take him if court if he won’t agree to dissolve the station.

In “National Pastime,” the solution to WZBQ’s woes doesn’t take 90 days to sort out. Barry devises and presents a plan Karen accepts in 90 seconds, and thereby we begin to see Sportiello’s overefficiency and his script’s shortcomings.

Let’s face it. “National Pastime” starts out all right. There’s an adversarial man and woman, the conventional combination for an eventual romance. There’s a radio station that employs a dozen unique people and might fall victim to the Depression. There’s an ultimatum issued and a problem to be solved. The piece is positively cluttered with conflict and crisis. What can go wrong?

Not letting any of those threads become important. Sportiello fixes characters’ problems as quickly as he poses them.

Barry and Karen settle into a partnership without much enmity or complication. They have nothing to resolve, nothing to get over. Midpoint in the musical, Sportiello will invent a new conflict, Karen’s sensitivity to something Barry told her, but it too will last a nanosecond before all is right with the couple’s world.

Sportiello can’t sustain tension. Barry should be facing a genuine conundrum. How does he protect his employees, preserve the job he loves, appease Karen, and make enough money to salvage WZBQ from her designs?

This is heady stuff, and not necessarily the fodder for comedy, but Sportiello doesn’t take the time to work out any of the issues his script raises. No sooner does an angry, disgruntled Karen head for the Bay City train station, then return to WZBQ to tell Barry she’ll give him the 90 days he requested, than Barry has the answer to obliterate all of their ills.

Baseball is his solution. Baseball sells. Baseball gets people to listen to the radio, Baseball is a breeding ground for advertisement.

But, you remember, Bay City doesn’t have a team.

NealBoxBarry has that licked too. Bay City doesn’t need a team, at least not a real one. Barry recalls to Karen that when the stadium in Bay City burnt down pre-Depression, the Cougars played all of their games on the road. He proposes to invent a team, a fictitious team, and have them once again play all of the games away, this time far away, in Europe.

The Bay City Cougars will face opponents in Barcelona, Paris, Helsinki, and Berlin, and WZBQ will simulcast the action with its regular program announcers, Marty and Lawrence, doing play-by-play in addition to the grain and livestock reports.

Karen, an attorney, of course mentions fraud and that she, Barry, and others could end up in jail for staging invented games and passing them off as real, but the projected profits from the gambit sway her mind. Immediately.

See what I mean. Sportiello concocts conflict good screwball conflict. He adroitly thinks up problems that must be solved. But he facilely dismisses them just as fast. Nothing in “National Pastime” requires or excites any real worry. Everything in Bay City proceeds jauntily one second after a dilemma is settled, which is typically one half-second after it is first mentioned.

Sportiello leaves you nothing into which to sink your teeth. Any quandary is cured by a pill that seems to act immediately upon the swallowing. Barry and Karen are a business team and love interest before you can blink. A baseball team answers WZBQ’s woes before other alternatives are discussed. The fictional, and fraudulent, nature of the team is glossed over even through the threat of jail remains a comic leitmotif for most of the show.

All stays happy-wappy no matter what happens. Sportiello comes up with lots of ideas. There’s a romantic rivalry for the usually, and resignedly, ignored production assistant, Mary, played by Maguire. Gangsters who owe Karen their freedom are brought in to pose as baseball players being interviewed from abroad. Lawrence, the Cougars announcer, summarily kills off one of the team’s players in an outfield accident. A Life Magazine investigative reporter lands in Bay City en route to Cedar Rapids and takes an interest in the Cougars, one shared by a representative from Major League Baseball. WZBQ’s receptionist, Betty Lou, wants to be a Hollywood star and thinks of heading to L.A. and changing her name to Betty Grable. Earthquakes come in handy.

You certainly can’t fault Sportiello for his imagination or ability to think up complications. The trouble is none of them pay off. They’re entertaining to hear. They engage for a second. But since nothing is taken or presented seriously, you are left with the likeable characters and rousing good time Foster, Latarro, Tapper, and the cast provide.

Because nothing works, it’s clear Sportlello has fielded a crazy, vapid plot on purpose. We are supposed to be amused at the odd upheavals that interrupt and threaten smooth life in Bay City. The stupid, convoluted plot is just a series of jokes on which to build other jokes.

That would be fine and eminently excusable if all wasn’t so superficial and scattershot. The inane is part of musical theater tradition. Read the plots of operas some time. They’ll keep you laughing more than the Bible. Even the inane has to have a cause for concern, has to have a dramatic purpose, even a silly one. If Sportiello genuinely wants to compose an intentional mess, he has to be cleverer and make some situations alarming, suspenseful, or tension-fraught.

Sportiello dies on his own petard. His solutions are too fast, too simple. No one has a chance to think things through or digest all that is happening. The audience cannot get involved with the characters except on the most shallow of levels. The story of “National Pastime” is so laissez faire, it evaporates before it has a chance to take hold. Interest in any character or situation is momentary. Even an ongoing gambit that is supposed to be sentimental, Karen’s war within herself about her relationship with her father, is never moving because Sportiello brings it up sporadically and always without pathos or depth.

Surprisingly and blissfully, at Bucks County Playhouse, this causes minimal damage, or less than one would expect, because Foster and Latarro have things proceeding so merrily. Jolliness dominates. You get lost in the pleasure of the company and shrug at the overcrowded, non-existent book. Sportiello’s expediency will haunt “National Pastime” in subsequent mountings in which Foster, Latarro, Maguire, and Gibson may not be involved. The musical has every chance to fall apart in other hands. Luckily for the Bucks Country audience, the show ambles along congenially in New Hope.

Once you determine to forget the book and watch Foster’s game cast in action, “National Pastime” becomes a cheerful pleasure. Once upon a time, I would have, and more accurately, said a gay pleasure, meaning upbeat and festive rather than homosexual. (At some point in my life, I want the useful word, “gay,” to revert to its old meaning or find use in its original and contemporary contexts.)

From the start, you see the brightness in Foster’s production. The characters, except for Karen, will be played broadly but stay in human scale and remain comically likeable in spite of their various neuroses, antics, or ambitions.

WZBQ bustles with activity, and Barry, played by Spencer Plachy, comes across as harried but solid and reliable.

Each member of the ‘ZBQ team has a tic. Lawrence has an enviable voice but he is tied to Bay City to take care of his ailing mother and to woo Mary for what is going on to 10 years. Mary is pert and competent and attracted to Lawrence. It’s the 30s, so she’s waiting for him to make the first move. Betty Lou is a blond bombshell who dresses and walks with the glamor of the movie stars she aspires to be.. Timmy, played by the adorably pixyish Matthew Bauman, barrels happily though many scenes, often using a slide whistle, egg beater, or grogger as a sound effect. Meredith Beck, Danielle Mia Diniz, and Alexandria Van Paris bop in and out as the Jingle Girls, who sing the bubbly musical commercials Tapper has written for the show.

Bay City is portrayed as a lively little town, and the denizens of the radio station exude non-stop vitality. The speed of Foster’s production, and the great characterizations the cast delivers, keep you buoyed and interested. Sportiello’s plot becomes window dressing. Only when you find out about the Life Magazine reporter do you have more than a second’s pause about a character’s safety or fate. The Life discovery troubles you for three seconds.

Albert M. Tapper’s music is of the lively, old-fashioned sort. His lyrics also tend to tell stories and are especially welcome in this era of rock tunes and doggerel on Broadway. Tapper’s score has a lot of variety as it veers from the Jingle Girls’ advertisements to ballads. Its highest moment comes when, after three aborted attempts, Stephanie Gibson’s Betty Lou gets to belt out her challenge to Hollywood, “Watch Me Shine.”

Show-stoppers, liberally abetted by Latarro, keep “National Pastime” going. Kelli Maguire, as Mary, has several fine musical moments, which is fitting because in a good, solid cast, Maguire has the truest voice, moves the best, and keeps a smart line between comic portrayal and reality. Her dominance in the number, “The Rules of the Game,” is quite impressive and reinforces all the positives Maguire brings to “National Pastime.” Her duet, “Get Hot,” with Andrew Kober as Joe, one of the Chicago hoods, who fancies Mary and, unlike Lawrence, acts on his attraction, lives up to its name, as Maguire and Kober bring some sparks to the Playhouse stage.

Janine DiVita, who has one of the hardest tasks playing the conservative Karen amid all of Sportiello and Tapper’s big personalities, aces another challenge, making the most of out of her first song, “Life Is Selection,” which must be pretty good because it marks the one time Tapper repeats a slow tune over and over again without a bridge or upbeat passage to relieve it. In less deft hands, the song could become monotonous, but DiVita entices you to listen to Karen and take in what she has to say.

Tapper’s melodies, “Life Is Selection” excepted, and the frequency of musical interludes allows you to escape the inanity of Sportiello’s book. You’re more than diverted. You’re transported into an elating screwball comedy that keeps you entertained.

The dynamism of the cast makes a lot happen.

Kelli Maguire is not only a fine entertainer. She is an adroit actress who can be among the madcap characters in “National Pastime” and still seem realistic and natural. Stephanie Gibson has so much energy and comic timing as Betty Lou, she enlivens any scenes in which she appears. I’m not sure whether you can use the word “hoyden” while referring to a male, but Matthew Bauman’s sprightly presence and consistent verve makes him a kind a whirlwind on the Playhouse stage. Bauman’s grin alone can put you in a good mood. And when he drifts by with one of his sound effects, he’s always funny.

Spencer Plachy is solid as Barry, a regular guy who wants to carry out his dream of creating a successful radio station and who has the pluck to take chances, even illegal or unethical ones, to beat the odds that stack up against him. Barry’s confrontation with the originally intimidating Karen is another example of the nerve he can muster when his radio station and employees are in jeopardy.

Janine DiVita, as noted, has the most thankless role, but she plays it with aplomb. It is fun to watch Karen melt as she begins to regard Barry as more than a business partner forced on her by her cantankerous father’s will. DiVita is a strong singer who finds the sincerity in Karen’s songs and comes across as a person with more facets to her than other characters, including Barry, have.

Andrew Kober gives Foster’s production an air of stability when he steps on stage as Joe, a career criminal who pays his defense fee to Karen by pretending to be a ball player.

While others rush through their parts, not damagingly but without giving their characters the chance to establish more than a type or an impression, Kober’s Joe takes such time with his comedy and portrayal, and the care shows, Except for Maguire’s Mary, Joe comes off as the most complete character. You feel as if you know him, and you like the guy you know, even if he is personally acquainted with Al Capone.

Kober also steps up to the plate in musical numbers, having a pure, expressive voice and a way with a dance.

One oddity in “National Pastime” involves the player Joe represents dying from smashing into an outfield wall. That allegedly ends his usefulness and leads to his having to leave Bay City and return to more violent crime in Chicago. The question is if the player Joe speaks for is fictitious and never seen because he’s only heard on radio, why should Joe have to leave? Why not just let him be the voice of another player or the dead player’s replacement? Realizing the path of “National Pastime,” you see why Sportiello has to get rid of Joe. As usual, the way he lit upon has holes that challenge plausibility and make his writing look sloppy.

Michael Dean Morgan is a treat as the deadpan Lawrence, the Bay City intellectual who has the voice to be at a major radio outlet in a big city but doesn’t have the guts to seek a job away from his hometown. Morgan is appropriately disdainful about calling baseball games Barry invents and comically flustered when Joe is so easily able to win Mary’s affection just by paying romantic attention to her.

Morgan’s is a complete portrayal that adds to the overall enjoyment of “National Pastime.” Will Blum, as Marty, the dimmer bulb in the broadcast booth, is also quite funny, especially when he shows his ignorance of baseball by not knowing how to pronounce the name of the game, putting the accent on “ball” instead of “base.”

You wonder where Abe Goldfarb’s character, Vinnie, disappears until Goldfarb comes back looking more fit and muscular as the Life Magazine correspondent who thinks the Cougars would make great story and get the go-ahead from Mr. Luce to pursue it.

Design work is fine throughout Foster’s production. Bucks County Playhouse unearthed and restored a turntable of which scenic designer Jason Sherwood makes great use, showing all the offices and studios of the radio station as his set revolves and leaving room for an outdoor setting that can be festooned with bunting to celebrate the Cougar’s perfect no-loss season in Europe. Jennifer Caprio has a great sense of the 30s period and dresses all accordingly. I especially like that she chose to dress Betty Lou is glamorous dresses the wannabe movie star sews after seeing them in movies and movie magazines. Matthew Bauman provides a lot of David A. Thomas’s sound design. Jake DeGroot’s lighting keeps all bright. David Wolfson and his band bring out the pep and liveliness of Tapper’s songs.

“National Pastime” has aspirations to travel from New Hope to as far as Broadway. While Foster’s production for Bucks County persuades you to overlook the musical’s flaws and enjoy the show’s overriding vitality, a Broadway audience, paying $160 for the privilege of seeing the show may not be so charitable. Especially since Broadway is currently graced by a rousingly hilarious and über-polished staging of Cy Coleman, Betty Comden, and Adolph Green’s “On the Twentieth Century,” which is set in the same era, has a screwball plot, and is oh so precise in its dramatic structure and mechanics. It would be a mistake to think “National Pastime” could compete with Broadway fare in its present state.

Of course, with a run under its belt, its present state may change, just as I hope the continuing previews of “An American in Paris” will lead to a vast improvement of the pretentious, self-congratulating show I saw in March and realize where it radiates moments of brilliance and concentrates on enhancing them.

“National Pastime” runs through Sunday, April 19, at the Bucks County Playhouse, 70 S. Main Street, in New Hope, Pa. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday. (No matinee is scheduled for 2 p,m. Thursday, April 16.) Tickets range from $85 to $20 and can be obtained by calling 215-862-2121 or by visiting www.bcptheater.org.

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