'Johnny Baseball' takes a few innings to warm up

  • Article by: GRAYDON ROYCE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 26, 2013 - 5:09 PM

REVIEW: Part love story, part baseball yarn, the tale based on the suffering of Red Sox fans serves a side dish of racial history.

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Joshua James Campbell, Zach Curtis and Timotha Lanae in "Johnny Baseball" at Park Square Theatre.

Photo: Petronella Ytsma,

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I know a hardcore baseball fan who refuses to leave before the end of the game. "Who knows?" she says. "The Twins might rally in the bottom of the ninth."

This stay-to-the-end doctrine would serve well anyone who visits St. Paul's Park Square Theatre to catch the area premiere of "Johnny Baseball," a musical based on the experience of long-suffering Boston Red Sox fans.

Writer Richard Dresser, lyricist Willie Reale and composer Robert Reale serve up baseball and romance with a heavy side dish of racial history to explain the mythic hex that kept the Red Sox from winning the World Series from 1919 to 2004. Known as the "Curse of the Bambino," the spell allegedly stemmed from the Red Sox sale of Babe Ruth to New York in 1920. Ruth had been great with the Sox, but he became a legend with the damn Yankees.

But Dresser and the Reales suggest that answers lie less with Ruth and more with Pumpsie Green. Who? Green integrated the Red Sox in 1959, making it the last team in Major League Baseball to do so. Boston had passed on Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays previously and decided to make its interracial christening with a ham-and-egg infielder who hit .246 in a four-year career. So the curse was about bone-headed, racist personnel decisions.

"Johnny Baseball" is a bit of a hash in the early innings as the creators assemble the scaffolding on which to build their story. Willie Reale's lyrics seem to clatter against his brother's music without a natural cadence. The flow and pace, under Doug Scholz-Carlson's direction, falls victim to a herky-jerky scenario covering too much ground. We're here, we're there, they're singing, they're rambling, they're spooning, they're yelling and it's intermission.

Joshua James Campbell portrays Johnny O'Brien, a pitching naif who allows the corrupting racism and manner of the 1919 Sox to ruin his budding romance with blues singer Daisy (Timotha Lanae).

Years later, Johnny and Daisy get a second chance through their son Tim (Rudolph Searles III), and the Red Sox again show themselves as racist dolts.

Once the show has built its history, things pick up, the Reales' music clicks on its rhythms and the story becomes sleeker. Actor Zach Curtis, who also plays the Babe, commands more interest as Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey, and Kasono Mwanza does a nice turn as Mays -- particularly in "See You in the Big Leagues," a duet with Searles.

Campbell and Lanae sing like orioles. Campbell, though, never lands on sure feet in his search for Johnny's character, his Massachusetts accent waxing and waning.

"Johnny Baseball" is like a baseball game: It has moments to cheer and a reason to hang around for the ninth.

Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299

  • JOHNNY BASEBALL

    What: Music and words by Robert and Willie Reale. Book by Richard Dresser. Directed by Doug Scholz-Carlson.

    When: 7:30 p.m. Thu.-Sat., 2 p.m. Sun. Ends Feb. 10.

    Where: Park Square Theatre, 20 W. 7th Pl., St. Paul.

    Tickets: $48-$68. 651-291-7005 or www.parksquaretheatre.org

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