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A CurtainUp Review
The densely plotted tale promises to explain the "Curse of the Red Sox," an 86-year period when the Sox couldn't win a World Series that ended in 2004. Sox lore claims the Curse was set off when Harry Frazee traded Babe Ruth to the Yankees in 1920. In Johnny Baseball, we learn instead that the franchise's losing streak dates back to the career of fictional phenom Johnny O'Brien, perhaps the most politically naïve Bostonian in theater history. Johnny (Colin Donnell), who is drafted into Babe Ruth's (Burke Moses) Sox, falls in love with Daisy Wyatt (Stephanie Umoh), an African-American blues singer in a local brothel who is apparently the only woman in the shop who has never slept with the randy clientele. The Sox convince Daisy to take a gig in Harlem to avoid a PR nightmare, and Johnny loses his magic touch.
Cut to the 1950s, when Johnny is coaching the minor league Worcestor Boosters. A young African-American man named Tim shows up with a letter explaining that he's Johnny's son with Daisy, and Johnny recognizes a good arm when he sees it. But this is Tom Yawkey's Red Sox, and Yawkey has just turned down both Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays (who appears in a brief cameo).
The good intentions of Johnny Baseball, whose music and lyrics were written by two Boston locals, surface most endearingly during the frame to this bleak story, when beleaguered fans in the bleachers complain about their lives, marriages, and, of course, the game.
There are a few contenders here for the American Songbook. In Babe Ruth's show-stopping "Brotherhood of Bastards" we learn, contrary to the wisdom of Damn Yankees, that ball players do actually indulge in booze and sex. The wonderfully awkward "Worcester Boosters Fight Song" gives us three intensely spirited rural cheerleaders who will never dance with the stars; and the henchmen of Mr. Yawkey, who seem to have escaped from a production of Kiss Me Kate, deliver the endearingly cynical "Mr. Yawkey Has a Vision."
Most of the New-York based actors have Broadway backgrounds and deliver their lines and songs gracefully, though Stephanie Umoh's voice, calibrated somewhere between Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, transcends the general brassiness of show tune crooning in her torchy "Color Me Blue," and just about everything else she sings. That said, there is a particularly exasperating number towards the end, "Errors," that initiates a genre of song that I have never heard before and hope I never hear again: the race crimes expiation power ballad. In it, a man who has suffered from racial injustice that has effectively destroyed his life and the lives of his father and mother realizes that, since the current Red Sox line-up is much more diverse than it was forty years ago, he ought to get over a longstanding (and by no means resolved) legacy of hatred so that the Sox can win a World Series.
Now, I am all for audiences leaving the theater with a grin on their faces and a song in their hearts. But material this incendiary, and this important, needs to be handled with care, even if that means offending a few subscribers who would rather not fess up to the racial intolerance that has soured, and continues to sour, so many American institutions. The ART, and theater more broadly, has a special obligation to open up discussion intelligently and responsibly rather than knit it up in a product to bring to market. Johnny Baseball is clearly intended as a valentine to Boston, the new and old hometown of its prodigiously gifted director, Diane Paulus, a former Harvard undergraduate. But a far better valentine would fine-tune the attention of its audiences, perhaps unnerve them a little, and leave them with the greater gift of a challenge, a mission, and a sense that one of Boston's other legacies—its collective intelligence and openness to debate—has been engaged.