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Johnny Baseball' takes the mound

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New musical offers new look at old curse

ORONO It's Game Four of the 2004 American League Championship Series. The Red Sox are on the verge of being swept by the New York Yankees. A group of fans in the bleachers is living and dying with every pitch, sitting in fear of the fabled Curse of the Bambino.

Only it turns out it might be a curse of a different sort.

So begins 'Johnny Baseball,' the new musical being presented by the University of Maine's Summer Music Theatre Festival. Directed by Tom Mikotowicz, the show - with book by Richard Dresser, music by Robert Reale and lyrics by Willie Reale will run through Aug. 12 at Hauck Auditorium on the UMaine campus.

As the Sox battle the Yankees, an elderly fan begins to relate the real story behind the legendary Curse. In 1919, a young phenom of a pitcher by the name of Johnny O'Brien comes to Fenway Park. The nave Johnny gets pulled into the orbit of the mercurial Babe Ruth. At one of the Babe's favorite nightspots, Johnny meets singer Daisy Wyatt and romance quickly blooms. Shortly thereafter, so too does Johnny's career.

Unfortunately, the politics of the time particularly within the Red Sox organization lead to the team discouraging Johnny's relationship with the African-American Daisy. This leads to the erstwhile Johnny Baseball' seeing both his baseball dreams and his newfound love disappearing.

As the lives of Johnny and Daisy leap forward into the 1940s, the fans in the bleachers in 2004 are drinking in every stress-filled moment of extra innings as the Red Sox and Yankees continue to battle.

In 1948, the Red Sox are looking at a couple of African-American ballplayers a talented pair consisting of Willie Mays and Tim Wyatt Daisy's son. Both perform well, but the institutionalized racism of the organization overwhelms any talk of their actual talent. According to the elderly fan in 2004, that failure to integrate (Boston was the last team in Major League Baseball to add a black player to their roster over a decade after Jackie Robinson's first game) is the true source of Boston's curse.

It's wonderful to see something that brings two things I love together. It seems odd that two so very American creations baseball and musical theater have so rarely been brought together in this way. There's 'Damn Yankees' of course but what else? 'Damn Yankees' is a fine show but it's a half-century old. Nice to see another attempt at a baseball musical.

For a show like this to have any chance, the performers at the center of it need to be capable. Jon Hawley brings an affable good nature to Johnny O'Brien; Haley embodies the gee-whiz naivete of the pitcher, both in performance and in song. Aziza Macklin brings a powerful voice and imposing stage presence to her portrayal of Daisy Wyatt. The love story between the two is both sweet and sad.

The rest of the ensemble capably creates the world around Johnny and Daisy. Dimitri Moise is a dynamo of energetic excitement as Tim Wyatt and Chris Candage takes a memorable turn as a boisterous big-headed Babe Ruth. Mario DaRosa is Willie Mays among others, while Christie Robinson, J.B. Lawrence and Jason Wilkes each create their own diverse cast of characters, populating the world of the play along with the rest of the hard-working cast.

And of course, there are the songs. There are some outstanding numbers in this show; particular favorites include the sweetly optimistic 'All I Have to Do' from Hawley, Robinson's love/hate Yankee homage 'Not Rivera' and the beautiful and evocative duet 'Circle in a Diamond.' Ensemble numbers such as 'God Bless the Boston Red Sox' and 'One More Run' are a lot of fun, while songs such as 'Color Me Blue' and 'Errors' resonate with the sadness of the past.

Set designer Dan Bilodeau created a multi-functional modular set that allowed for the creation of the show's multiple settings. The replica of the Fenway scoreboard is a particular treat. Shon Causer's lighting design helps steer the tone while also helping provide 'walls' for the wide open set. Lucia Williams-Young has captured a lovely sense of the past; the old-timey baseball uniforms are especially fun.

This production isn't without its problems, relatively minor though they might be. There are moments where the singers are overwhelmed by the volume of the orchestra. The amount of time spent on transition between scenes is a bit excessive, though you can expect some of those difficulties to be ironed out. And the show itself is still a work in progress; there are scenes and songs that are noticeably rougher than others the fine-tuning is still underway.

But again, those issues are minor. Opportunities like this don't come around that often it is a chance to be among the first to see a show that will someday make the scene on the Great White Way. Plus, it's about the Red Sox and the songs are catchy. Step up to the plate. You won't regret it.

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