Review: Bucks County Playhouse knocks it out of the ballpark with musical ‘National Pastime’

national pastimeBy John Dwyer and Herb Millman

Here’s the pitch: You have a brilliant cast on first, a creative director on second, and a screwball comedy with charming music on third.  And as fast as you can shout “play ball,” the Bucks County Playhouse has scored another home run.

To begin the play-by-play, let’s talk about the play: It is 1933, and in the town of Baker City, Iowa, the radio station WZBQ is down on its luck. As the opening number, Baker City Rag, with clever choreography by Lorin Latarro, states, “Things are so bad, there must be a curse…Hoover started this mess, FDR’s made it worse!”

Barry Landis (Spencer Plachy), manager and part-owner of the station, can’t meet payroll. His ratings are low, and his advertisers few. He has a stalwart group of employees who enjoy the Baker City radio spotlight, but gosh darn it, they wish that they could get paid.  The group includes Betty Lou (Stephanie Gibson), the dizzy blonde receptionist with Hollywood aspirations; Mary (Kelli Maguire) who does the traffic reports and “The Morning Mary Show”; and the team of Lawrence (Michael Dean Morgan) and Marty (Will Blum), who do local news and the crop report.

A separate subplot is the unrequited and unsaid yearning between patient Mary and the overly cautious Lawrence. This plucky band of guys and gals meet up with Karen Sloane (Janine Divito), who has inherited half of the radio station from the father who abandoned her as a child. The other half went to Barry Landis, but Karen, a big time Chicago lawyer, wants to sell the station.  She arrives in Baker City to close it, but is persuaded to give Barry and the radio station three months in last a last-chance bid to make good.

In fact, the only time the radio station made real money was when it broadcast a local minor league baseball team. So Barry comes up with the scheme “what if there was a Baker City team called the ‘Cougars’ that no one would see? They would only play away games…far away games…in Europe.”

This con is accomplished by bringing in some pros from Chicago, gangsters Joe (Andrew Kober) and Vinnie (Abe Goldfarb). The ensuing escapades sounds like movie madness, and it is — only the mayhem is on stage with a star lineup of triple-threat actors, singing and dancing the charming and delightful songs of Al Tapper.

Tensions are mounting…will city slicker Karen Stone fall for Barry, the earnest small town Iowan? Will Mary’s unrequited yearning for Lawrence ever be realized, and will they go to the Pig in the Poke dance? Or will Mary give in to a new beau, Joe, from the wrong side of Chicago?

Spencer Plachy with his handsome Midwest wholesomeness sings his way into our hearts as Barry. And the gorgeous soprano of Janine Divito enhances every note she sings as the hard-hearted attorney Karen Sloane transitions into a determined-to-survive Iowan radio station owner.

But the entire bench is noteworthy. Betty Lou as played with broad strokes by the irrepressible and irresistible Stephanie Gibson is an audience favorite. Her Second Act number Watch Me Shine is a show-stopping paean to Midwest aspiration for Hollywood fame. Kelli Maguire and Michael Dean Morgan are marvelous as veteran broadcasters who yearn for one another from afar.  Their story arc is one of the highlights of the show. Marty, the cub reporter for the radio station, is played with wide-eyed innocence by the accomplished Will Blum. Chicago gangsters Joe and Vinnie are crazy good, and when Andrew Kober as Joe Jackson is on stage, he gets the job done — bada-bing, bad-boom! Abe Goldfarb plays both Vinnie and Rogers, a Life correspondent.

A special mention must go to the rotating stage turntable. The Playhouse had a historic, but inoperable turntable that went unused for decades until now — it was pressed into use for this show. Without it, there would have been no show…or at least a much different show. The flow is facilitated by shifting scenes that are accomplished seamlessly due to the turntable. Kudos to the Peter Maloney and Tom Watson of the BCP for this accomplishment!

The Tony Sportiello script is a runaway train of crazy circumstances, and to audiences who want to see memorable characters played by gifted character actors. Lorin Latarro’s choreography is high energy and spunky…yes, spunky! The script and the choreography is filled with American can-do optimism. It is a becoming a truism that a show directed by Hunter Foster will not be just a good, solid show, but a great show. This is again true in National Pastime. Special mention also to Jason Sherwood for the Depression-era sets, and to  Jennifer Caprio for the period-perfect costumes.

As an aside, the Playhouse should be commended for doing new works, nurturing playwrights, and providing a safe place for creativity. This is what the playhouse should be about — not only showing the tried and true, but also giving a creative space to writers and directors and talented designers.

By the finale, the fans were standing and hooting and hollering as if they had witnessed a terrific ball game. We all realized that we had seen something special. Yogi Berra could have been talking about National Pastime when he said, “Love is the most important thing in the world, but baseball is pretty good too.”

National Pastime runs through April 19, and tickets are $29-$85. Call (215) 862-2121, or purchase online.



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