The flimsiest, least plausible, most fleetingly resolved of books cannot mar the boisterous brightness and ongoing exuberance of Bucks County Playhouse’s world premiere musical, “National Pastime.”
Hunter Foster, who damagingly overcooked his previous assignments at BCP, finds the right formula to sustain his production’s amiable heartiness and keep “National Pastime” entertaining and likable throughout its duration.
High-spirited vivacity, brought about by Albert M. Tapper’s snappy tunes, Lorin Latarro’s inventively energetic dances, cheerfully upbeat acting, and all-purpose utility man Matthew Bauman sailing by in a gondola and using egg beaters and slide whistles to generate sound effects, triumphs over Tony Sportiello’s relentless silly story that has to be intentionally bad for Foster and company to remain so buoyantly lively in its wake.
“National Pastime” is set in 1933, at just about the time Franklin Roosevelt is succeeding Herbert Hoover as president, and the Great Depression is in its fourth disastrous year of decimating the American dream. That includes Bay City, lowa, in America’s heartland and where wheat, beer, and baseball are all threatened by the national malaise.
Tapper and Sportiello seem to take their writing cues from the musicals that dominated Broadway stages in 1933, most of which had sappy madcap books that were the merest frames for a series of comic characterizations and showcased songs meant to enhance the composer’s and performer’s reputations. The scripts were practically an obligatory burden that linked the new numbers the audience came to hear.
“National Pastime’s” songs comment more on the general action of the play than 1930s tunes did, but it is the fun of hearing Kelli Maguire, as a romantically ignored radio producer, or Stephanie Gibson, as a radio station receptionist who talks about heading to Hollywood and changing her name from Betty Lou to Betty Grable, roaring through show-stoppers that makes Tapper and Sportiello’s musical a giddy good time.
The words “national pastime” suggest baseball, and BCP’s show makes good on that surmise. Baseball becomes the mechanism to rescue a failing radio station from Depression-era doldrums. One co-owner of the station wants to close down the money-losing venture. The other wants to continue Bay City’s lone broadcasting outlet ad infinitum. The pessimistic partner gives her counterpart 90 days to devise a plan that will attract listeners and advertising. Before 90 seconds pass, he proposes broadcasting simulated baseball games played by a fictional Bay City team whose entire schedule consists of away matches in Europe.
I told you “National Pastime’s” premise was far-fetched. Sportiello tries to give it edge or depth by including a romantic rivalry, a business clash that leads to a love affair, the risk of exposed fraud, gangsters, a Life Magazine investigative correspondent, and a woman’s struggle to stop trying to appease or impress a late father who abandoned her in infancy. But all of the complications combined couldn’t fill Tom Thumb’s thimble let alone give a musical dramatic heft. Not even a death!
Luckily, entertaining showmanship dominates, and “National Pastime” gets by on good, old-fashioned sass and deftly conceived good humor.
Tapper’s score succeeds where Sportiello’s goes deliberately awry, Hunter and Latarro keep all moving at a breezy pace, and several fine performers get to strut their comic stuff in a vehicle that needs and welcomes their adept clowning.
Tapper’s songs are generally melodic and have lyrics that go beyond today’s penchant for doggerel to tell stories, reveal characters, and show Tapper’s handy way with words. In addition to numbers, Tapper has written commercials for a trio, the Jingle Girls, to sing. These are often witty, and Meredith Beck, Danielle Mia Diniz, and Alexandria Van Paris do a fine job with them.
As adversaries turned allies, Spencer Plachy and Janine DiVita anchor Hunter’s production as the conspiratorial owners of a radio station. Plachy has a likable leading man presence that makes you root for his character no matter what. DiVita is skillful at showing her character’s many moods.
Kelli Maguire is outstanding in a variety of ways. She has the production’s best voice, moves well, and makes you really care about her character. Andrew Kober is funny and smooth as a Chicago thug who pretends to be a ball player and is attracted to Maguire. Stephanie Gibson pulls out all stops in her big number, “Watch Me Shine,” and is a gifted comedienne. Michael Dean Morgan gets mileage out of the nerd who has to step up if he wants to keep his girlfriend. Will Blum can get laughs from merely mispronouncing “baseball.” Abe Goldfarb stirs things up as a visiting reporter.
BCP unveiled a restored turntable that gave Jason Sherwood the versatility to create a snazzy period radio studio and offices. Jennifer Caprio’s costumes also captured the 30s look. David A. Thomas’s sound design gave Matthew Bauman the chance to entertain as an actor, dancer, and effects technician.
National Pastime, Bucks County Playhouse, 70 South Main Street, New Hope, Pennsylvania. Tuesdays through Thursdays, 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m., and Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays at 2 p.m. (A 2 p.m. matinee is scheduled for Thursday, April 9. No evening show is set for Wednesday, April 8.) Tickets range from $29 to $85. 215-862-2121 or www.bcptheater.org.