Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Preaching to the bleachers

Johnny Baseball is the new Red Sox musical at the American Repertory Theater, a feel-good all-American musical about race relations.

I will never know the depths of despair that the Fenway faithful went through from 1918 to 2004. 86 years is a long time without a pennant, but I only became a local (and thus a Red Sox fan) in 1994. 8 years before that, I’d been cheering on the Mets among fellow New Yorkers clustered on Manhattan sidewalks around televisions tuned to the game in store windows on every block. I thought at the time that the drought for the Mets since 1969 had been a long time, literally a lifetime for me. I had no idea.

Johnny Baseball gives a sense of it, framing the story of the Curse with a group of long-time season ticket holders at Fenway Park watching the pivotal Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS. We see their devotion to superstition and ritual, their certain knowledge of impending defeat, and above all their commitment to cheering a team that can never win the World Series.

But why can’t they win? The talented cast will sing you the story, and it’s not the canonical Curse of the Bambino. Babe Ruth is here, or at least the echo of his ego, but he’s not the center of the story. What comes to life is the story of Johnny O’Brien, a fictional young pitcher who joins the Red Sox in 1919 and would lead them to the Series if not for Boston’s legendary racism.

For Johnny loves a colored girl, and that just will not do.
Fans might forgive a drink or three, and painted ladies too.
But there is no joy in Boston when a hero of the field
Decides to love a colored girl, so something has to yield.

The racism certainly runs deep in the history of baseball and of Boston, but blaming the Curse on Boston’s racism is only slightly less problematic than claiming that the racism has ended. Throw in a magical negro in the second act of a musical decrying racism, and you start to wonder whether writers Richard Dresser and Willie Reale are also claiming that irony has ended. The only way past it is to focus on the love story between Johnny O’Brien and Daisy Wyatt, and cheer them on with the modern open heart that the historical characters lack. That’s a clever piece of pander, particularly when the show’s story allows us to point to the 2004 World Series win as proof of our moral superiority. While we’re merrily congratulating ourselves on that, will we even notice that the lyrics arguing for the right to love anyone you choose are carefully non-gendered?

Diane Paulus, director of this production and CEO of the ART, wants to bring new audiences to her theater, and it’s always interesting to see what she’s selling along with her trademark emphasis on concessions (sausages, hot dogs, and beer in this case). I heard her at the Boston Foundation last week discuss her inaugural trip to Fenway Park last season for a meaningless end-of-season game. She was confused by the odd slow clapping for a team that had fielded their worst players for the game and performed terribly, until a friend explained that it was [pause, beat] ironic applause. Her subtext: My God! If they can invent ironic applause, perhaps they might appreciate art! Or at least theater!

So now we have the Red Sox musical for Red Sox fans, because that’s a big market in this town. She says she wants to sell them tickets and convince them that they’ll be comfortable in the theater. That’s a fine goal, but the sociodynamics of an all-white audience watching a musical about racial integration are exaggerated by choosing the Loeb’s thrust stage configuration instead of its proscenium configuration for the production. (Mixing in the predominantly white Red Sox fan base does not change the racial balance of the ART’s usual predominantly white audience.) When she chooses the thrust stage configuration, does she innocently want to echo the shape of a ballpark? Or does she imagine it will comfort the Red Sox fans in the audience if they can more easily see so many white faces in the other seating sections? Or does she hope to reinforce the show’s message of social change by highlighting the lack of racial diversity in both the Red Sox and ART audiences? The only explanation that clearly isn’t right is that she knows how to block for a thrust stage. The entire show is played to the center orchestra, with only occasional nods, winks, or thrown peanuts to the side sections.

Messages aside, Johnny Baseball really is fun. The music is catchy, the musicians are great (with the wonderful Tim Ray on piano and conducting), and the cast is fabulous. Stephanie Umoh (Daisy Wyatt) has a couple of stunning solo torch songs in the first act, and I wish I had those songs on my playlist. There’s a good balance of humor and angst throughout the show, and we have the benefit of knowing how the game turns out. You just have to go and see it from a position of privilege. In the center orchestra.

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