Thursday, July 8, 2010

Racism strikes out; or, whitewashing the Red Sox at the A.R.T.

Huck and Jim watch The Curse play out from their time-raft in Johnny Baseball.

I swore to myself I wouldn't write about Johnny Baseball. But I suppose I have to, because so little of any value has been said about it. The Globe's Louise Kennedy was lukewarm to the show, but her general response was completely forgotten once she threw one of her out-of-political-left-field screwballs at the production, claiming it relied on "cheaply homophobic" jokes. I prefer expensively homophobic jokes, myself - but this was one of Louise's keepers, I must admit, if only because this time literally no one - and I mean no one - could tell what the hell she was talking about. Good old Louise - for synthetic controversy, you can't beat her.

Meanwhile in the Herald, Jenna Scherer's lede was kind of a head-scratcher in another way ("It isn't obnoxious," she enthused). Then Bill Marx wrote one of his "this little entertainment was energetic, but really beneath my critical authority as Grand Poobah" reviews. The Times's Ben Brantley wittily picked the show apart (largely because it is, indeed, kind of a ripoff of Memphis), and Variety seemed to love it before a killer close - something about it someday "being ready for the big leagues." That had to hurt.

Of course at the same time that the critics were hemming and hawing, Red Sox Nation did embrace the show (which was extended). And why not - it did two things, after all: it treated the trivia around which these sad people have built their lives with utter seriousness, and even more importantly, it absolved them of the charge of racism.

Not that Red Sox Nation was ever, ever racist. Of course not. The Yawkeys were racist; the management was racist. Oh, and of course Boston was long organized (and to some extent still is) in a form of geographic apartheid. The integration of the public schools - which hit at the center of the Sox audience - led to riots, in fact, in the 70's.

But the Red Sox fans themselves were not racist. Or sure, maybe they once were. Maybe some of them were, once.

But not now.

Or at least that's what Johnny Baseball would like you to believe. And "believing" is big in this musical. The bedraggled fans in the bleachers in the storied play-off game in 2004 that frames the musical all "believe" in the Sox. And they are just a crustily lovable bunch of white trash kooks, believe you me! So lovable! Which makes you want to "believe" right along with them. Until you suddenly think - what are we all "believing" in, exactly? I mean didn't the fans in 1919 and 1948 "believe" just as much as the ones in 2004? Hmm. So what's different? Well, the musical explains over the course of two hours, then the Red Sox were racist. And now they're not.

You see the problem, even if director Diane Paulus and her creative team keep a studiously blind eye aimed in its direction. What changed about the Red Sox and its audience? And how and when did it change? That's the question at the bottom of their putative theme. Certainly there's room for a popular musical about racism and the Sox - but to be of any value, it would have to address those questions.

But Paulus & Co. literally offer us no clue. And their "bleacher creatures" seem even more in the dark, as it were. Every amusing flaw and quirk about them is exposed - their drinking, their gambling, their petty crimes, even their masturbation habits. And in the persons of the ART's crack comic cast, their litany of Charlestown/Southie (but not, of course, Wellesley/Weston) foibles is, indeed, pretty funny. The only thing we don't hear about them, come to think of it, is their current feelings on race. Even though they're all white (as were 100% of the adults in the audience the night I saw the show). Because, of course, to broach that subject would suddenly open up genuinely raw feelings, and real questions of guilt and social justice.

And the box office of Johnny Baseball would tank. And all that really great "populism" would go to waste!

So we're stuck in some sort of daydream-timewarp of a show that we get the impression is supposed to operate as a kind of musical confessional - if Boston will only just admit that in the 40's it was racist - or actually just that Tom Yawkey and Joe Cronin were racist - then all will be forgiven. By Diane Paulus. Or maybe Harvard.

Okay, whatever. All I have to say is that as a money machine, this show may prove golden (in Boston, at least); but as "populist art with integrity," it's transparent b.s.; it just doesn't grapple with its own ideas. Indeed, it completely whitewashes (sorry) its central figure, the mythical "Johnny O'Brien" a.k.a. "Johnny Baseball" (Colin Donnell). Now let's see: Johnny's a white Irishman in the early years of the last century - and yet he has no racial baggage at all. He's ready to vote for Obama back in 1918, in fact - and falls head over heels for African-American chanteuse Daisy (Stephanie Umoh) in a heartbeat, even though she entertains in a bordello. What a nice open-minded boy! He's so - how to say this - so . . . so fucking unbelievable.

Now if Johnny Baseball had shown the eponymous Johnny struggling with his own received attitudes when faced with love, it might have had some real dramatic power. But the decision to eschew this topic turns both Johnny and Daisy into sweet, pretty blanks, and entirely cripples Richard Dresser's book. And as a result there's just no real conflict for anybody to play in the show; there are evil racists afoot, of course, until near the end, when suddenly there aren't anymore. We don't even really understand why, precisely, the Curse is lifted when it is. But who the hell cares? The Sox win the pennant! The end.

Still, the show has one secret weapon: its lyrics. Rarely has a musical depended on its lyricist (Willie Reale) as heavily as Johnny Baseball does; indeed, his lyrics aren't just the best thing about the show; they actually drive the production. Reale's knowledge of the Sox milieu - coupled with a wit that's light, but ruthless - results in songs that on paper are the best I've heard in years. One number - "Brotherhood of Bastards," that includes the immortal line "I wanna sleep with a girl/just like the one that slept with dear old Dad!" - may alone be worth the price of admission, and there's more deadly-accurate hilarity to be found in "One More Run," "Mr. Yawkey Has a Vision," and several more. Alas, the music (by Reale's brother, Robert Reale) isn't in quite the same class, although it's okay - it's yet another "jukebox"-style musical, with facile numbers from various periods and styles that somehow all sound alike. Still, Daisy gets one genuinely touching tune ("Do I Know You?"), and there's a kicky number for Willie Mays and (the again imaginary) Tim Wyatt in Act II. In an age in which Wicked counts as a high achievement, the score holds its own.

But again alas, Diane Paulus hardly lights a fire under the material. She manages the traffic smoothly and smartly, and has one powerful visual idea near the end of the show; and she gets off a lot of funny gags about skank, because you know, skank's her core brand. She doesn't let any real dancing in the show, which is a real deficit, but I guess dancing would just be too gay for Red Sox fans. Still, that gap contributes to the growing sense - since you could describe much of the production as "workmanlike" - that she's hardly in the major musical-theatre leagues inhabited by the likes of, say, Nicky Martin, or Michael Lichtefeld (whose brilliant work we sometimes saw at the North Shore Music Theatre).

On the plus side, however, the cast is indeed a good one - certainly the best large ensemble I've ever seen at the A.R.T., probably because everyone has honed their chops in national tours or on Broadway. There's really not a weak link in the cast, but special shout-outs should go to Burke Moses, for his ebulliently obnoxious Babe Ruth (he even nails the Babe's famously queeny trot around the diamond) and Charl Brown's quietly intense Tim Wyatt. And to be honest, leads Colin Donnell and Stephanie Umoh can both sing and act beautifully - and are just beautiful to look at, too.

These performances should be enough to put the show over - the trouble is, there's no real show to put over. Not yet. So we might lose all those great lyrics! And I don't want that to happen - so, even though I feel I'm giving aid and succor to the enemy, I'll play Elliot Norton for a minute for the A.R.T. and explain how to fix what's wrong with Johnny Baseball.

The show obviously needs to be about its hero - and that will require revamping the bland first act. Johnny has to have an inner conflict over Daisy; we have to see him develop from playing one of Babe Ruth's crude cronies to becoming his own man, and lose his racist baggage in the process - only of course this happens too late, and he loses Daisy, too. Therefore the second act, when he encounters his own son in the minors (sorry - was that a spoiler? Really?) becomes a theatre of his own (and his city's) redemption - which is frustrated once again. I hope the writers can fill in the final scenes themselves (although to be fair, Johnny Baseball's clumsy book doesn't feel like writer Richard Dresser's other work - my gut is the show owes its current form to pressure from other sources). An arc like this would provide the musical with both a dramatic engine (which it currently lacks) and some real resonance as social comment. And both are needed, I think, if the show's going to play in New York.

And of course it shouldn't bother Sox fans, either - as they're no longer racist, you know.