BWW Reviews: Austin Theater Project's Production of NATIONAL PASTIME a Near Home Run
NATIONAL PASTIME, produced by Austin Theatre Project and Algonquin Theater Productions, plays the Center Stage Theatre at 2826 Real St, Austin 78722 now thru Sunday, October 6th. Performances are Thursday - Saturday at 8pm and Sundays at 3pm. Tickets are $20-$30. For tickets and information, please visit www.austintheatreproject.org
There are times when audiences would much rather see a carefree, lighthearted show rather than something thought provoking and profound, and that's exactly what National Pastime, a new Broadway-bound musical offers. While the show may need a few rewrites before it gets to the Great White Way, it's already a solid and enjoyable valentine to musicals from days gone by.
The plot alone sounds like it's straight out of a musical from the 1930s. It's 1933 and the small town of Baker City, Iowa is suffering from the Great Depression. The town's radio station, WZBQ, is suffering, and when lawyer Karen Sloan (Haley Smith) arrives saying that she owns half of the station and wants to sell, it seems unemployment is eminent for all who work at WZBQ. But when Karen mentions that the last time the station was profitable was when the town of Baker City had a baseball team and the station would broadcast the games, she hatches a crazy idea along with the station manager Barry (Jim Lindsay). They create a fake team and broadcast the fabricated games over the air, telling the radio audience that since the town no longer has a baseball field, all of the team's games must be played abroad, way abroad, in Europe. Their fraudulent broadcasts start to bring in ratings and advertising revenue to the station, but all is threatened when a reporter from Life Magazine comes to town to do a story on the team.
The far-fetched story is ripe for broad slapstick comedy, and Tony Sportiello's book is full of one-liners and silly gags. The score, with music and lyrics by Al Tapper, is a tuneful and pleasant throwback to old Broadway sounds, but while some numbers come close, none reach showstopper status. Director Barbara Schuler does her best to highlight what works in the material and downplay its few shortcomings. Jokes land, and the zany, almost spastic action in the second act is particularly fun and well-staged. Choreographer Meg Steiner provides a few well thought out numbers, but some smaller moments which would work well with minimal staging get some razzle-dazzle choreography that they don't need. David Blackburn's unit set of the radio station is fairly simple but serviceable (the nod to a baseball diamond is a very clever touch), and the costumes by Veronica Prior are gorgeous, well-made vintage outfits.
The success of the production though truly lies in Schuler's talented and winning cast. Every member of the eleven person cast is fantastic. BranDon Myers is delightful as Marty, the station's dim-witted announcer ("Girls can play baseball?" he says when someone mentions Babe Ruth). As Lawrence, Marty's smarter and far more pretentious co-host, Derek Smootz gives a solid performance, and Suzanne Orzech is lovely as Lawrence's feisty love interest who becomes thoroughly irritated by his inability to ask her out. Though her character doesn't get much to do aside from a running gag about her number being interrupted, Rachel Hoovler is adorable as Betty Lou, the receptionist with dreams of Hollywood stardom. The show's two leads are exceptional as well. Jim Lindsay gives the station manager Barry an energy and enthusiasm that makes him immediately likeable. While his hair brained scheme is absolutely nuts, there's never a question as to why the staff at WZBQ is so faithful to him. As Karen, Barry's partner in crime and inevitable love interest, Haley Smith is all business and no nonsense (that is until she comes up with the nonsensical plan) which helps create a unique dynamic between her and Barry. These two have chemistry, and each is delightful to listen to number after number.
Though the material may need a bit of tightening and a couple rewrites here and there, National Pastime is well past basic training. Already, this show is a charming, silly, enjoyable show. The bases are loaded, which means a grand slam could be one batter away.