Johnnie Baseball at A.R.T. is a winner

Move over Damn Yankees! There’s a new musical about the Boston Red Sox, and it’s a home run.

Red Sox fans, run, do not walk, to the American Repertory Theatre’s wonderful production of Johnny Baseball, a rich and richly entertaining musical about the Red Sox, race in America and the community of perpetual hope.

The basic premise of the story is that the curse that lasted for 86 years was not a result of the sale of Babe Ruth to the Yankees but the racism that had the Sox turning their backs on the likes of Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays. It was 1959 before the Red Sox became the last team in major league baseball to hire a Negro. Having grown up in Boston, I well remember Pumpsie Green, who was never going to be the powerhouse that we could have had with Robinson, Mays or Sam Jethroe if the owners hadn’t been so narrow-minded. (It was more the owners and Sox management than the city. Sam Jethroe, who participated in the same sham tryout with Robinson, became National League rookie of the year in 1950 with the Boston Braves, just a half a mile away!)

Playwright Richard Dresser reportedly has said the inspiration for Johnny Baseball came from watching the 2003 ALCS finale between Red Sox-Yankees when the Sox were ahead by 5-2 but folded in the 11th inning in a dramatic and all too familiar way. Damn Yankees! Damn Grady Little, for that matter, for leaving Pedro Martinez in when he had run out of gas.

Beneath the humor and the touching tale, the introduction of the team’s very real racism keeps Johnny Baseball from being just a feel-good song fest. The musical, which blends fact with fiction, echoes the theme of the excellent book Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston by former Herald sportswriter Howard Bryant. The play deservedly takes the luster off local icons Tom Yawkey and Joe Cronin, though apologists continue to argue they were merely products of their times.
The songs and the voices are mostly really really good; the staging is innovative; the pacing is spirited. New A.R.T. director Diane Paulus has distinguished herself with Johnny Baseball, redeeming herself after a disastrous production of Paradise Lost. Members of Red Sox nation will identify with the gallows humor of perpetually disappointed Red Sox fans (the chorus, in this case) and their bargains with God (“One more run and I’ll give up cigarettes!”)

Among the fictionalized characters, you’re going to love the portrayal of the drinking, womanizing Babe Ruth (Burke Moses) who on his deathbed says his only regret is having spent so much time with his family. The heart of the show is a love story between Johnnie O’Brien (Colin Donnell) , a white pitcher on the 1919 Red Sox, and a beautiful and talented black singer named Daisy Wyatt (Stephanie Umoh). I don’t want to give away more of the story.

Brothers Robert and Willie Reale did a fine job creating the music and lyrics, building on the story collaboration between Willie Reale and Richard Dresser and Dresser’s book. Credit should also go to Nancy Houfek, voice and dialect coach, who helped create Boston accents that didn’t want to make me cringe.

Johnny Baseball runs through June 27 at the American Repertory Theater on Brattle Street in Cambridge. By then, maybe the Red Sox will be playing more than 500 baseball.

– Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

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