The show: "Johnny Baseball" at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Williamstown, Mass.
What makes it special?: It's a musical centering on the Red Sox "curse."
First impressions: This baseball musical is not so much "Damn Yankees" as the "Damned Red Sox." It proposes that the legendary curse that stopped the team from winning the World Series for 86 years wasn't because the team's owner sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees but rather because of institutional racism.
The show is tuneful and overall entertaining but its two central characters are earnest and bland. The second act, however, is swell, filled with emotional resonance and satisfying numbers. Overall, the show makes an enjoyable enough summer diversion but it's not yet ready for the big leagues.
So it's a single...double?: It's hard not to slip into baseball lingo but yes, somewhere between the two.
Who is Johnny Baseball?: He's a fictional character who joins the Sox in 1919 (the last season for Babe Ruth there) and Johnny, an orphan raised by nuns in Worcester, becomes a pitching sensation. But when he falls for a black singer there's trouble and he must choose between his career and his love.
Duh. It's 1919 in Boston: Yes, but Johnny (James Snyder, who was terrific as Billy Bigelow last year in Goodspeed's "Carousel") is a bit of an innocent. But the problem isn't his naivety but that his character and that of the singer Daisy (De'Adre Aziza) are colorless.
Though book writer Richard Dresser ("Rounding Third," which played Hartford's TheaterWorks) shows humor, heart and cleverness of construction throughout the script, he drops the ball with his central characters whose dialogue is stilted, corny and a bore.
It also doesn't help that Aziza is dressed matronly and that there's little chemistry between the leading players. So when Johnny makes a pivotal decision at the the end of the first act, there's little at stake for him —- and especially the audience. But then something interesting happens.
Which is?: The second act. The story jumps forward to the late '40s. Johnny is brought back from drink and despair by Daisy –— who is now a celebrated Josephine Baker type star —- to help coach her baseball-loving son Tim (Derrick Baskin) who is a pitching sensation in the minors, just like Johnny was. Hmmm.
Baseball is slowly being integrated and Tim, with Johnny's old connections, gets a try-out for the all-white Red Sox —- along with a player named Willie Mays (Alan H. Green). (Mays actually tried out for the team and was rejected. The Sox was the last team in the majors to have a black player in 1959.)
So what makes the second act different?: The emotional center isn't about romance but rather fathers and sons. Plus the musical numbers the fraternal composing team of Robert and Willie Reale, have more fun and feeling. "Not Rivera" is an amusing tale of anguish sung by the bleacher fans watching the famous fourth game of the American League play-offs in 2004. (The whole story of "Johnny Baseball" is told as a flashback on that fateful day).
There's also genuine emotional tugs in "Daisy's Letter," "Circle in a Diamond" and "I Thought About You.'' Brooks Ashmanskas has a fine comic turn as Sox owner Tom Yawkey. And there's a sensational number with Tim and Willie Mays, "See You in the Big Leagues." Only "The Game of Baseball" is emotionally flat, especially the way director Gordon Greenberg stages it as a dull curtain closer.
Who will like it?: Red Sox fans.
Who won't?: The Tom Yawkey family.
For the kids?: Older ones should enjoy it. Romance is PG rated and race history in sports is important to acknowledge. But you might have to explain who Bill Buckner was.
Twitter review in 140 characters or less: Second time at bat shows the same hits and errors as its 2010 premiere at Cambridge's American Repertory Theater.
Thoughts on leaving the parking lot?: I saw the 2010 production, dynamically directed by Diane Paulus, and felt the show had potential. Now I'm not so sure.
Yes, the romance is beefed up but it's still not convincing. I see why the funny "bleacher fans" interludes got cut, but they at least provided an entertaining diversion. And though the relationship between Johnny and Babe Ruth, nicely played by Tom McGowan this time, gets more script time, it's not thematically focused. (There always seemed to be a song missing between Johnny and the Babe.)
But I'm still glad the show got another chance at Williamstown, whose artistic director Jenny Gersten is married to lyricist Willie Reale. It was worth the second at-bat at a major theater to see things more clearly and to offer an entertainment with local appeal.
The basics: The show plays through Aug. 3 at the Nikos Stage, 1000 Main St. Williamstown, Mass. Running time is 2 hours and 10 minutes. Tickets are $55. Information at 413-597-3400 and www.wtfestival.org.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun