Most theatre companies line up as either devotees of drama or musicals. Keegan Theatre stakes its reputation on embracing and producing both. The company’s work is often strong and compelling. However, with National Pastime, the company has fallen into the sin of bad musical comedy: the actors are having more fun on stage than we are in the audience.
National Pastime is a world premiere. The premise for this musical, set in the 1930’s in a little town in Iowa, is promising. Baker City, Iowa is sunk in the Depression. A little radio station is holding on for dear life, broadcasting the weather and discussing crops, while store after store on Main Street is closing up. Karen, daughter of the station’s owner, now a rising lawyer in Chicago, returns to help Dad. The folks at the station come up with the whacky idea of producing a program that would follow the season of a fictional winning baseball team. It’s a wild pitch, but it works. A broadcasting duo learns on the job what the different positions on a baseball team are, and two con men, brought in by Karen, beat a rap by posing in various interviews as players on the team. The show becomes a hit, offering diversion and local pride to the locals, and draws national attention in the personage of a writer from Life Magazine.
Hold it. A fast-talking female lawyer “in charge” in the thirties? Two men in Iowa in that period not knowing anything about baseball? If everyone buys that the local team is exporting baseball to Europe (early 30s), why are they all singing about the rise of Mussolini and the SS? (That was not even in the American consciousness until later.) And why did the writers not even go into language about the Dust Bowl, as hard hitting as the Depression for the Midwestern farmer?
The first song is delivered with flair by Paige Felix and Carolyn Meyers, singing a radio jingle. They are joined by Autumn Seavey, the station’s receptionist, and the three ladies nail those tight harmonies. The jingles are a delight throughout the show, and not just musically. Al Tapper, lyricist, gets to show off time and time again with some clever word play. How do you rhyme with Alka Seltzer?
But the other numbers become a bit of a mishmash. Composer Al Tapper misses a lot of opportunities to build on the strengths of the musical vocabulary of that period. There’s a little bit of pop, a dash of country western, some Broadway blare, and one repeated “turn”, complete with contemporary gestures of attitude that was pure Patti LaBelle or another Sister. The show ends with a seemingly obligatory American anthem, complete with flag waving and patriotic lyrics. The orchestrations are ho hum.
There are some effecting moments for the performers. John Loughney and Tim O’Kane are the two slightly goofy Broadcasters, equally clueless in their own ways about baseball and love. As they tussle with slide whistles, scramble with scripts, and slam their fingers in making the radio sound for a ball hit, they serve us up some real slapstick. Katie McManus plays the lawyer Karen with confidence, and she has some good instincts and strong singing chops. But the evening I saw the show she sounded pinched at the top. (A note to Musical Director Jake Null, he might help the singers by changing keys for some of the numbers.)
Dan Van Why and Josh Sticklin do a Laurel-and-Hardy comedic turn as the two con men. When, as Joe, Dan Van Why cuts loose in what is the best musical number in the piece, he shows off his moves and literally sweeps the Little Miss Mousey (Larissa Gallagher) off her feet. His performance in the scene was at the level of skill I have come to expect of Keegan Theatre. Both Van Why and Sticklin return in the second act as city slickers and give us two marvelous characterizations which got me spluttering with laughter.
Mark A. Rhea and Susan Marie Rhea team up to co-direct. They chose to push for a broad and heavy style in which the actors gave the audience a lot of unnecessary grimacing, takes and double-takes. While the performers seemed to enjoy hamming things up, the style slowed the pace down and made the evening a little “gummy” on the whole.
The night I saw the show, the Church Street Theatre appeared to be filled with family et al. It was the kind of evening where everyone has come out to support their friends and see them cavort on stage. For that, God bless America. But National Pastime is not ready to play major league ball.
Book by Tony Sportiello
Music and lyrics by Al Tapper
Co-Directed by Mark A. Rhea and Susan Marie Rhea
Produced by The Keegan Theatre
Reviewed by Susan Galbraith
Running Time: 2 hours 20 minutes with 1 intermission
Barbara MacKay . Washington ExaminerMaura Judkis . TBDNelson Pressley . Washington Post
Bob Anthony . AllArtsReview4You