THE BASEBALL season doesn't commence in South Philadelphia until April 6, when the Phillies host the Boston Red Sox. But in New Hope, Thursday will be Opening Day as "National Pastime" debuts at the Bucks County Playhouse.
"National Pastime," which runs through April 19, is billed as a musical love letter to baseball. The plot of the set-in-Depression-era-Iowa comedy centers on a struggling radio station that broadcasts the "games" of a make-believe team in order to boost ratings.
Although the piece being staged in New Hope premiered in 2012 in New York City, its roots go back to the early 1990s, when the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, in Cooperstown, N.Y., commissioned a one-act play about the game.
"I came up with the idea of a [contemporary] radio station that the last time it had any kind of success was when it broadcast baseball games," offered the appropriately named Tony Sportiello, who got the writing gig through a friend whose family members were the Hall's official photographers. "But they couldn't [sign] a team, so they made it up.
"But even in the '90s - before the age of the Internet - it was hard to imagine you couldn't find this team. So we set it back in the '30s, when it would have been more difficult [for the public] to locate the team."
It wasn't until 2009 that Sportiello's one-act play became a full-blown musical. That's when lyricist-composer Al Tapper, whose musical, "Sessions," was produced by Sportiello, entered the picture.
"Al saw the play, and together we thought it could be a musical, because it was short," he explained. "It was only about an hour long, so it gave us plenty of room to put in songs.
The pair also realized that adding music would be a perfect aesthetic fit. "It was an old-fashioned screwball comedy, which lends itself to [the musical format]," said Sportiello. "And it lends itself to the kinds of songs Al writes."
According to Sportiello, who described himself as a lifelong Baltimore Orioles fan, baseball is the only one of the four major North American sports that really lends itself to the stage (in addition to the 1950s blockbuster, "Damn Yankees," other baseball-set musicals include a revue called "Diamonds," the Red Sox-centric "Johnny Baseball" and the stage version of the hit 1988 film, "Bull Durham," which premiered last year in Atlanta).
Sportiello reasoned that basketball and football, while arguably more popular today, don't have the history that baseball claims, nor the sport's "old-fashioned" veneer, or its century-plus standing as a crucial strand of the American fabric. And, he noted, baseball's place in our culture was forged during a time when the media were inclined to protect and embellish an athlete's reputation, as opposed to today's warts-and-all coverage.
"If Babe Ruth had lived today," he theorized, "he probably would have gotten the treatment that all the other stars receive."
"Big" is the operative word for "Ragtime," which runs through April 12 at Bristol Riverside Theatre. It's based on the big historical novel (set in 1906) by E.L. Doctorow, boasts a big cast (for a regional production), is filled with big ideas about big topics like race relations, capitalism and immigration's place in American history, and its characters include such big, real-life individuals as Harry Houdini and Booker T. Washington.
Overall, BRT pulls off the challenges presented by the sweeping, multifaceted story. Director Keith Baker generally keeps his large crew in line, during the many ensemble numbers. While the set design is limited to a pair of stairs-and-platform setups, the era is vividly evoked by Linda Bee Stockton's costumes and Stephen Flaherty's score, which throughout maintains a fealty to existing musical modes of that time.
Broadway titan Terrence McNally's book manages to include all of the novel's major points and characters, and Lynn Ahrens' lyrics mostly push the right buttons while moving the story forward.
Leading the cast is Derrick Cobey as Coalhouse Walker Jr., the thoughtful, erudite Harlem pianist who is the victim of a particularly nasty hate crime perpetrated by members of a fire company in lily-white New Rochelle, N.Y. - a crime that has tragic consequences for Coalhouse.
Also of particular note are Leslie Becker, as the kind-hearted Mother; Matt Leisy, as Younger Brother, a wealthy young WASP who becomes radicalized by Coalhouse's fate; and Michael Thomas Holmes, as Tateh, the Eastern European Jewish immigrant who serves as the avatar for the millions who came to America seeking a better life.
The main drawback is that there are some musical numbers - including the "The Crime Of the Century," which explains the backstory of Evelyn Nesbit (the Kim Kardashian of her day); and "What A Game," a comic salute to baseball - that, while entertaining, contribute nothing, dramatically speaking, and simply add needless length to the production.
But that shouldn't keep anyone from seeing this interesting and well-staged show.