This new baseball musical hearkens back to both a simpler era and a simpler, sweeter kind of musical
Reviewed by Elizabeth Cobbe, Fri., Sept. 27, 2013
National PastimeCenter Stage Texas, 2826 Real
Through Oct. 6
Running time: 2 hr., 30 min.
In National Pastime, we come to a place of innocence and hard times: Depression-era, small-town Iowa, where four-letter words are absolutely verboten and the local economy sputters along as best it can. At the heart of Baker City, the 15 employees of the local radio station are barely hanging on to their livelihoods as they attempt to keep their neighbors tuned in with breaking news like the arrival of green beans on the menu of the nearby diner. It's a quiet life.
Until Chicago attorney Karen Sloan (Haley Smith) arrives with intentions of shutting down the struggling station. Owner Barry Landis (Jim Lindsay) talks her into giving them one more shot at turning a profit. His plan? Resurrect the town's vanished baseball team, the Cougars – but only sort of. The station will fabricate broadcasts of the most incredible baseball games you can imagine, all the way from Europe. The team's fortunes will rise as the season goes on, and so will the station's.
Don't look too hard at that story (book by Tony Sportiello, music and lyrics by Al Tapper), because there are more than a few cracks in it. How exactly it is that the rest of the small town buys into this season of made-up baseball games without knowing any of the players or hearing in advance that the Cougars would be reuniting is not clear. The resolution of romantic suspense is forced, as couples overcome obstacles to confess their love but without really having a good reason for doing so.
It's not like American musical theatre has always relied on the most watertight plots, of course. National Pastime hearkens back to an era before the cynicism of Avenue Q or satire of Urinetown, when the dialogue was squeaky clean and how the love interests eventually paired off didn't matter as long as they danced and sang.
Now, this is Austin. Our theatregoing bread and butter is about the new and unusual.
As a critic, when, in the same week as National Pastime, you've seen a collaborative tap-dancing exploration of altruism and a dance piece featuring massive electrical equipment, it can be tempting to knock the show that's just out to tell a simple story. But hey: Austin Theatre Project has mounted a good show. Inventive? No. Full of good singing and dancing? Sure.
Under Barbara Schuler's direction, the performers have thrown themselves into the task of making a show that is simple and fun. Turns of plot are sometimes contrived; the choreography by Meg Steiner is simple and the songs are straightforward. However, Austin is full of people who genuinely enjoy shows like National Pastime. Hopefully they will discover this production in time to treat themselves to an evening of conventional, well-performed musical theatre.