Nelson Pressley reviews Keegan Theatre musical ‘National Pastime’

The new musical “National Pastime” would be much better if it were a more aggressive ripoff. Right away, you think you’ve seen it before: It’s the 1930s and times are hard, even for the media, but a fast-talking dame dreams up an innocent hoax to foist upon an unwitting but enthusiastic public. Profits and good feelings ensue.

It sounds like “Meet John Doe” but it isn’t nearly as interesting, largely because writer Tony Sportiello and songwriter Al Tapper aren’t concerned about ethics or even storytelling, really. The persistently upbeat “National Pastime” just wants to tell some jokes and sing a few songs. So the Keegan Theatre’s show, directed by Mark A. Rhea and Susan Marie Rhea at the Church Street Theater, wanders along its carefree way, grinning for 2 1 / 2 aimless hours.

The setup features exactly the kind of happy idea advanced by Barbara Stanwyck’s newspaper gal in “Meet John Doe,” only instead of recruiting a fake Everyman whose populist columns the reporter ghostwrites, here a young lawyer named Karen suggests that a failing radio station can save itself by broadcasting imaginary baseball games. The setting is a rural Iowa town that once had a beloved team; Karen figures if the station announces that the team has been revived but has to play all its games in Europe — well, why not?

“Don’t Give It Up,” Karen sings in one of Tapper’s on-the-nose numbers, nearly all of which are filled with pluck and determination. So the busy, optimistic bees of WZBQ embrace the fairy tale. Karen recruits two Chicago thugs she successfully defended in court to be ballplayer personalities, and a station employee named Barry scripts play-by-play for the games, with the locals winning so much that the big-leaguers take note. Within these games, Sportiello’s book does indeed rap out a series of daffy base hits, especially as a literal-minded DJ named Lawrence interprets such terms of art as the “suicide squeeze.”

These bits are done as blackout sketches, though, and that eventually draws attention to the lack of an actual plot. Oh, Barry and Karen are kind of attracted to each other, and so are second bananas Lawrence and a quivering, dull, buttoned-up librarian type named Mary (who takes off her glasses and wears bright colors by the end). The second act is obliged to start somewhere, so it picks up these romantic threads and fleshes out what had been a very amusing running gag about Betty Lou, the receptionist who dreams of fleeing to Hollywood.

The joke milks Betty Lou’s cute but fleeting musical interludes about being a star, yet somehow she gets the musical’s wildly anachronistic 11 o’clock number, a post-Motown, “Dreamgirls” energy burst complete with Supremes-style backup singers. As Autumn Seavey competently belts and beams in the role, you’d think it was Betty Lou’s show.

Then again, it was set up to be Karen’s show. Otherwise, what’s the point of her solo, “Life Is Selection,” after her cockamamie scheme takes wing early in the first act? As Karen, Katie McManus displays enough old-school musical theater skills that you figure her for the centerpiece; her deliveries are snappy and her singing has brass.

But it’s not Karen’s show, either. It’s just a random goof, and if you want to argue that many a 1930s musical was equally shaggy, okay. But they had a lot of splashy dancing, where this has a very little cautious choreography by Kurt Boehm. And the songs here are decidedly minor league.

The two-tier radio station set is functional, but you’d be pressed to call either the big, cheerful cast or the small orchestra polished. The syrupy show itself is corn — but corn that’s suffered a touch of blight. Shucks.

Pressley is a freelance writer.

National Pastime

book by Tony Sportiello, music and lyrics by Al Tapper. Directed by Mark A. Rhea and Susan Marie Rhea. Music direction, Jake Null; set design, George Lucas; costumes, Kelly Peacock; sound design, Jake Null; lights, Allan Sean Weeks. With Brian Calli, Paige Felix, Larissa Gallagher, John Loughney, Timothy Lynch, Tim O’Kane, Carolyn Myers, Josh Sticklin, Dan Van Why. About 2 1 / 2 hours. Through May 13 at the Church Street Theater, 1742 Church St. NW. Call 703-892-0202 or visit www.keegantheatre.com.

First Post byline, 1992; covering theater for the Post since 1999. His book "American Playwriting and the Anti-Political Prejudice" will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2014.
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