October 28, 2013

Little Theatre Takes Big League Swing: Broadway hopeful National Pastime opens Friday for three week run

Posted By Kimmie Braunthal

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One of three regional theaters selected to work the kinks out of a new musical with an eye on home plate, Little Theatre of Wilkes-Barre is happy just to be in the game. Originally a one-act play by Tony Sportiello, the new baseball-themed musical National Pastime played at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, in Washington D.C.’s Keegan Theatre and off-Broadway in New York City before approaching theaters in Arizona, Texas, and NEPA with an irresistible deal.

Written in the style of a 1930s screwball comedy, the musical follows radio station WZBQ in Baker City, Iowa as it struggles to survive at the height of the Great Depression in 1933. The last best ratings the station saw was during local baseball team broadcasts, but that team is long gone. So they create an undefeatable fictional team and broadcast its fake games to great success until the national media shows up wanting to meet the players.

A huge baseball fan, composer Al Tapper owns a valuable collection of memorabilia — cleats worn by Ted Williams in his final game, a cap worn by NY Giants outfielder Bobby Thomson when he hit “the shot heard round the world” in 1951 — so valuable in fact they production couldn’t afford to exhibit it in the lobby of the Peter Jay Sharp Theater in NYC because it cost too much to insure, according to a New York Postarticle last August.

“It’s still a work in progress and to develop something with no point of reference… you’re just kind of out there on your own,” co-director Christa Manning explained.

The creative team and producer Jason Hewitt have visited on more than one occasion and given their permission to Little Theater to put its own stamp on the piece.

“We have made a few changes with their approval to accommodate the way we designed our set or the way we were interpreting characters that we thought it would work better,” Manning shared.

Earlier productions were criticized for not being aggressive enough in its storytelling and not fully incorporating the historical context and these observations most added definition to the script before Little Theatre got it. The characters have meat on them now, Manning said.

“And with my style of direction, if they didn’t, they do now,” she laughed. “I’ve questioned them on everything and the research they did. If you don’t know the reference you’re speaking, don’t ever say the line again until you do. If they don’t know who Ed Murrow was, you’d better find out. Before you sing 23 skidoo, you’re going to know what that’s referencing.”

The story may be nostalgic with references to Babe Ruth and Amos and Andy, but this is no Rogers and Hammerstein epic. National Pastime is structurally contemporary.

“The whole tone of it is different. There’s a lot more dialogue than what you are used to. It’s not big, huge, gratuitous numbers. It flows with the story,” Manning said. “The whole thing is a con and you’re rooting for the guy pulling the con. You want the con to work.”

“A lot of people really don’t realize how challenging it is to take a brand new show like this and do one of the first few productions of it and bring life to it and make it work,” Hewitt told electric city via phone. “We still have things we have to work on in the show and we know that.”

He doesn’t live in northeast Pennsylvania, but he doesn’t have to in order to know what kind of shows we are used to seeing staged at community theaters in the region.

It requires a lot of courage for them to take on this kind of challenge, he praised.

“Everywhere we’ve gone there’s been this yin and yang. It’s very challenging to work on a new piece of theater but the reward for that is they will always be able to say, wherever this ends up — Broadway, off-Broadway, tour — that they contributed to something brand-new and they had a vital part in helping us learn about a show that we want to develop commercially,” said the Producer.

“By the time the get to Broadway they want to have a nice, neat completed project,” Manning reiterated. “I have learned so much and the cast has learned so much that for us, just for that alone, this has been worth it.”
While not all of Little Theatre’s changes will become permanent, Hewitt assures that each one of the three regional theaters will have made their mark on the future staging of National Pastime.

“They actually gave us a song that was not included in other performances,” said Manning. “Another song they were going to cut, after seeing our way of doing it, they decided to keep it.”

This whole concept of the out of town try-out is a nostalgic one. It was important to the creative team and the producer to see how the show played in “middle America.”

“Even when shows were done at the proverbial Shubert Theater in New Haven, by the time it got to that point it was already pretty well developed from a writing and talent standpoint,” Hewitt said. “We’re still well below that. We’re still finding out what kind of show we have here.“

The positive response they’ve seen from audiences so far has led them to believe there is an audience for not only National Pastime but the traditional musical comedy in general.

“We’ve seen that there is a place for that amongst Def Poetry Jam … and the more avant garde.”

Little Theatre’s cast includes Christopher LaFrance as Barry, Deirdre Lynch as Karen, Jillian Kemmerer as Mary, Jenelle Craig as Betty Lou, Paul R. Kantor as Marty, Dane Bower as Lawrence, Tom Franko as Joe, Adam Moore as Vinnie, Sam Granteed as Rogers, and Billy Joe Herbert as Jackson.

National Pastime opens Friday and runs through Nov. 10 with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. All tickets are $18. Call (570) 823-1875 for reservations or visit www.ltwb.org for more information.