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STAGE REVIEW

‘Johnny’ says play ball!

Fans will make the call to decide whether this musical is a big hit

By Louise Kennedy
Globe Staff / June 4, 2010

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CAMBRIDGE — There’s more to baseball than hits, and there’s more to theater than hits, too. But that doesn’t stop batters — or producers — from praying for the next home run.

And where better to set a baseball musical than in the heart of Red Sox Nation? That, apparently, was the thinking behind “Johnny Baseball,’’ the American Repertory Theater’s new musical about the Sox and their fabled curse that opened to the press Wednesday night at the Loeb Drama Center.

So is it a hit? Well, that will be up to the fans, of course. But from the press box, it looks like a solid double: a lively story that will please diehard fans and rookies alike, some clever lyrics . . . and a score that is, alas, more of a square than a diamond.

That’s not to say the songs are awful; they’re just a bit flat-footed, on the whole, and too many of them sound alike. Many start out promisingly, with a few ingenious turns of phrase or amusing rhymes, but then the plod-plod-plod of the rhythms and the aimless, vaguely old-fashioned feel of the melodies sends them crashing into the dust.

Fortunately, there are some glorious exceptions: a lovely ballad, “Don’t I Know You?’’; a hilarious comic interlude, “Worcester Boosters Fight Song’’ (make sure you pronounce that “Woostah Boostah’’); and the soaring paean that ends the show, “The Game of Baseball.’’ It’s in that song, which links the nation and its national pastime with the simple lyric ’’everybody’s country, everybody’s game,’’ that the thematic grandeur the show has been striving for really does come to life.

But it takes a while to get there. We begin with a beleaguered group of bleacher creatures, on the edge of despair as the Sox look ready to lose to the Yankees in the fourth game of the 2004 American League Championship Series. The youngest among them cries out, “Dear God, what do you want from us?’’

Cue the backstory. An older fan takes the boy aside and offers to tell him the real reason the Red Sox are cursed. It’s not because Harry Frazee sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees, this enigmatic figure says; it’s because . . .

Well, but that’s the whole story. Suffice it to say that the Babe does figure in it, but tangentially, and that the larger issue looming over the team (and therefore the show) is one for which the Red Sox and we fans should genuinely feel ashamed: that the team was the last in the major leagues to sign a black player. (Pumpsie Green in 1959, for those keeping score at home.)

But it wouldn’t be a musical without a love story, and so we get our titular hero, Johnny Baseball, born Johnny O’Brien and orphaned soon thereafter, and the lovely Daisy Wyatt, who unlike Johnny is black. Johnny’s refusal to drop her after he signs with the Red Sox is the start of his troubles, and the first step in the many that will lead to the aforementioned curse.

It all makes sense, more or less, and it ingeniously gives the musical a chance to brush up against Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, and other celebrities of the sport. But it also means that the show has to keep jumping back and forth from 2004 to 1919 to 1948 to 2004 again. Scott Pask’s set, a swiveling set of bleachers, helps keep the transitions clear, as does Diane Paulus’s crisp direction, but it still can get a little dizzying.

The show’s focus on Johnny also gives shorter shrift than would really make sense to the black pitcher at the center of the story, one Tim Wyatt (like Johnny and Daisy, a fictional character) — which is especially unfortunate because Charl Brown, who plays him, has one of the strongest voices, and strongest presences, in the cast. Stephanie Umoh’s Daisy, however, is lovely, with a heavenly voice, and Colin Donnell, as Johnny, sings with character and style.

Ultimately, “Johnny Baseball’’ wants to teach a small part of a familiar lesson — we should all learn to get along, and people should be free to love whom they please — within a feel-good musical. Given the theme, it’s just wrong that some of the show’s jokes are cheaply homophobic, but that’s the only even remotely political remark that could be made about a show that celebrates baseball, multiculturalism, and the American way.

If this sounds like a sharply new direction for the ART — well, that’s a whole other legend for a whole other time. Meanwhile, play ball.

Louise Kennedy can be reached at kennedy@globe.com.

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JOHNNY BASEBALL Musical with music by Robert Reale, lyrics by Willie Reale, and book by Richard Dresser, from a story by Richard Dresser and Willie Reale

Directed by: Diane Paulus. Choreography, Peter Pucci. Set, Scott Pask. Costumes, Michael McDonald. Lights, Donald Holder. Sound, Acme Sound Partners. Presented by: American Repertory Theater.

At: Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge, through June 27. Tickets, $25-75, 617-547-8300, www.americanrepertorytheater.org