Burke Moses and Colin Donnell
in Johnny Baseball
(© Marcus Stern)
Burke Moses and Colin Donnell
in Johnny Baseball
(© Marcus Stern)
Due to its very Boston-centric subject matter, A.R.T.'s world premiere musical Johnny Baseball, may never get to play on Broadway. But there's no doubt this show, directed by Diane Paulus, is a good, solid work in the all-American tradition that's worth seeing.

Together with composer Robert Reale and lyricist Willie Reale, playwright Richard Dresser has fashioned a semi-fictional explanation for the so-called "curse of the Bambino" -- the 86-year losing streak that plagued the Boston Red Sox from 1918 to 2004, supposedly set in motion when owner Harry Frazee sold Babe Ruth's contract to the New York Yankees in 1920.

In this dramatization -- which unreels in flashbacks framed by a bleacherful of disheartened fans observing the comeback game -- the curse had nothing to do with losing the Babe. As an older African-American onlooker (Charles Turner) explains to a fifth-grader stats savant (Erik March), the fault lay with the racism that pervaded the sport -- and Boston itself -- before, during, and after that fateful trade.

As of 1920, black players had been unofficially banned from major league games for over three decades; the color line would remain in place until 1947, and the Red Sox, shamefully, were the last major league baseball team to integrate, in 1959. But all this history means nothing to Sox rookie pitcher Johnny O'Brien (Colin Donnell, intensely believable in a made-up role).

O'Brien is preoccupied by his prospects, and furthermore suffering the throes of young love. Dragged by his idol and now teammate Babe Ruth (Burke Moses, appropriately bigger than life) to a bordello, Johnny -- who has yet to earn his titular nickname -- is instantly smitten by a "colored girl singer," Daisy Wyatt (Stephanie Umoh).

And who wouldn't be bowled over: Umoh is radiant in this role, and she gets ample opportunity to employ the rich colorings of her voice and fully inhabits each of the powerful, period-tinged songs that the Reales have provided her -- especially "Don't I Know You?" and "Color Me Blue." And even if the prose sections of the romance never quite sing, Umoh and Donnell manage to pull them off.

In any case, Daisy, true to formula, remains a "good" girl until true love comes along. She's also resourceful and extremely discreet. After a couple of Frazee henchman warn her that "fraternizing" will destroy Johnny's career, she feigns a change of heart, leaves town, and waits 28 years to throw a closing curveball that should wrench the hearts even of non-Sox fanatics.