Review: Bamboozling ’em with the ‘National Pastime’

 In Buck County Playhouse's production of 'National Pastime,' from left: Will Blum, Stephanie Gibson and Michael Dean Morgan. (Photo courtesy of Mandee Kuenzle)

In Buck County Playhouse's production of 'National Pastime,' from left: Will Blum, Stephanie Gibson and Michael Dean Morgan. (Photo courtesy of Mandee Kuenzle)

Play ball! But wait — time out! Don’t play ball, just pretend that you are. And there you have it — the plot of the new musical “National Pastime” at Bucks County Playhouse, in which a radio station broadcasts play-by-play action of baseball games that are never actually played.

I’m not talking about fantasy baseball, which fits the definition of games not actually played, in a sort-of sport that has millions of real fans. That’s today. “National Pastime” is set in 1933, when the Depression was reshaping American hopes and radio was becoming its own national pastime.

In fictional Baker City, Iowa, little radio station WZBQ is facing the same problems as businesses all over: no money for paychecks, for operating, for anything. And the outlook is bleak — even bleaker when the station’s heiress, a big-city lawyer, walks in and tells the station manager she’s selling. He convinces her that the station simply needs a scheme to make money.

But what? How about … local baseball, play by play? But there is no local baseball in this Iowa hamlet. Okay, so how about making it up? How about a fictional local baseball team that plays only teams, say, in Europe? (Far-fetched as it seems, Ronald Reagan’s early broadcasting career involved calling Chicago Cubs games he never saw. His source material was telegraph reports he turned into play-by-plays while he was in a studio in … Iowa. But in Reagan’s case, at least the games were real.)

The show, with a pleasant score by Albert M. Tapper that employs too many phrases no one used in 1933, and a book by Tony Sportiello that leans toward cute rather than clever, is fun enough in a tried-and-true boy-meets-girl-amid-animosity way. It becomes more cartoonish as it moves toward an ending that’s even a bit more fantastical than the notion that a small-town radio station could bamboozle its listeners, who probably all know one another.

The matinee I saw provided some unfortunate distractions. David A. Thomas’ sound design surely wasn’t what he had in mind, with two dead spots near center-stage. Almost the whole of one entire number was unintelligible.

And poor Jason Sherwood — he designed a cool radio station set with several rooms for different scenes and put it on a stage turntable. At the performance I saw, it was a runaway turntable. In one early scene, the actors revolved into the audience’s view as they began delivering dialogue, then continued moving across the stage and out of sight as the scene continued. At other times, the turntable stopped where it clearly shouldn’t have, forcing the actors (who appeared unfazed) to come off the set and proceed at the front of the stage. Then the turntable began revolving without them.

The hearty orchestra, conducted by music-arranger David Wolfson, sits at balcony level and its sound showers down onto the stage, covering the actors and sometimes obscuring the lyrics they sing.

In director Hunter Foster’s staging of the world premiere, “National Pastime” moves as quickly as a fast baseball game and as adroitly as a good one. The cast, in Jennifer Caprio’s swell Depression-era costume designs, is full of flashy singers who make the most of their spotlight moments, beginning with Spencer Plachy and Janine DaVita, the station manager and heiress who begin swooning over one another far too early in the script, taking all the suspense out of their relationship.

Other strong performances come from Andrew Kober as a good-hearted tough guy, Kelli Maguire as a station staffer and Stephanie Gibson as the loopy receptionist.

Three women sing advertising jingles from the station during the show’s scene changes, enhancing the early-radio feel. It’s a sweet, romantic vision of that time — hardscrabble early radio was probably never quite like this. But then, neither was baseball.

“National Pastime” runs through April 19 at Bucks County Playhouse, 70 S. Main St. in New Hope. 215-862-2121 or www.bcptheater.org.

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