The show reminds audiences that the Red Sox passed up the chance to sign Jackie Robinson and were the last team in Major League Baseball to field a black player: Pumpsie Green, in 1959, a dozen years after Robinson broke the color barrier by playing with the Brooklyn Dodgers (the subject of the recent film “42’’).
“The truth of the troubled racial history is still very much there,’’ said Gordon Greenberg, the show’s director (Diane Paulus, the ART’s artistic director, helmed the 2010 production). “We just don’t need to lean on it. . . . We can focus on the story and let that be the context.’’
The revamped version of “Johnny Baseball’’ features a cast that is almost entirely different from the Cambridge production. James Snyder, who created the title role in the 2008 Broadway production of “Cry-Baby,’’ stars as Johnny O’Brien. Playing Daisy Wyatt is De’Adre Aziza, a Tony Award nominee for her performance in the 2008 production of “Passing Strange.’’
In a telephone interview, Greenberg said that Snyder, as Johnny, “radiates a kind of star quality that makes everyone want to watch him and get involved in his story.’’ As for Aziza, the director said there was no doubt who would play Daisy once she auditioned for the part. “She came in and didn’t sing like everyone else on Broadway,’’ said Greenberg. “She came in and sang like Etta James, and we said, ‘That’s who we want.’ ”
Tom McGowan, best known as Kenny, the nebbishy, insecure radio station manager on “Frasier,’’ radically departs from that character to portray the bawdy, hard-drinking Babe Ruth. The Babe plays a more consequential role in the musical’s plot than he did in the original.
Both Yawkey and Frazee are portrayed by Williamstown Theatre Festival favorite Brooks Ashmanskas, who starred in a memorable production of Neil Simon’s “Last of the Red Hot Lovers’’ last summer.
“Johnny Baseball’’ is framed by the fourth game of the 2004 American League Championship Series between the Red Sox and the Yankees — the one that David Ortiz won with a dramatic homer, triggering an epic comeback and an eventual World Series victory that ended that 86-year drought for Red Sox fans. Anxious Sox fans serve as a kind of Greek chorus in the 2004 scenes of “Johnny Baseball,’’ but the revamped version devotes less time to the diehards of Red Sox Nation.
“We were so enamored of the fans the first time around that we got into their personal stories,’’ said Dresser. “What we realized this time around is we’ve got to stick with Johnny and Daisy and the Curse.’’ With regard to their own rooting interests, Dresser is a Red Sox fan, while the Reale brothers are, ahem, Yankees fans.
Though no members of the creative team would say directly they’ve set their sights on Broadway, they’re clearly hoping this won’t be the last time around for “Johnny Baseball.’’
“This is a show that can really play anywhere,’’ contended Greenberg. “It’s got such a broad appeal to it. What are the two greatest American pastimes? Baseball and musical theater. This is kind of a perfect union of the two. And it handles it in a juicy, entertaining, melodic way, but at the same time it’s got something important on its mind.’’
Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.