You Gotta Have Heritage
A life in art requires absolute dedication. We all know about the obsessive writing and rewriting, the pain-filled, sweaty workouts in the ballet studio and the hours of instrument practice of the serious artist. It's this kind of passion that's on view in Take Me Out to the Ball Game. Annie Dwyer, who plays one of the leads, clearly has spent every waking hour for many, many months -- possibly years -- playing with bubble gum. Yes, bubble gum. Mock not. Think what it takes to blow a bubble the size of a basketball and then retract it slowly and with perfect control back into your mouth. Or to let a deflated bubble dangle from your lips like a used condom while you slowly swing your head from side to side. Dwyer can create an inverse bubble. She can pull the gum into a sheet and make patterns on it with her lips, stretch it into a lasso several feet long and swing it out over the audience, use it as twine to tie things up. And you need to see for yourself what happens when her bubble gum meets a beer bottle and some popcorn.
As gangster's moll Rose Louise Romberg, Dwyer is all over the stage. She whines, seduces, twitches, mugs, waves her hands about, uses her eyebrows for semaphore and, having intruded into the men's locker room after a baseball game, quivers with lust as members of the Beloit Bulldogs take their showers. Dwyer goes too far, and then she goes further still, and there's a magnificence to her recklessness. She's also a complete scene-stealer. Sometimes I wonder how the other players can stand being on stage with her. Fortunately, they can all hold their own; several use her antics to accentuate what they themselves are doing. Every now and then, however, you see T.J. Mullin, who plays mobster Vincent Vascombe or Rory Pierce as baseball player Bill (The Bomber) Dawson, simply staring at her in bemused wonder.
Take Me Out to the Ball Game -- obviously -- is about baseball. Dawson is being recruited by the major leagues, represented by Jon Olson as the scout, Mr. Ashburn. The rascally Vascombe, who owns part of the Bulldogs, wants to keep Dawson in Beloit or, failing that, to become his manager. But Dawson already has a manager, his frighteningly smart and competent fiancée, Helen, played by Johnette Toye. So Vascombe, Rose and the hired muscle, Sid (Alex Crawford), decide to kidnap Helen, hoping a distraught Dawson will play badly in front of the scout.
The first act struck me as a little static, but things speed up a lot after the intermission, when the company cuts loose. The script, by Mullin, is pretty funny, in particular Vascombe's endless malapropisms and circumlocutions ("cash cow" becomes "capital bovine," for example), which completely befuddle all the other characters except for Sid. Unfortunately, I know nothing about baseball; if I did, the show would probably be even funnier. (Sorry! I wasn't born in America. The game isn't in my blood. Field of Dreams did move me to tears, but they were tears of derisive laughter.) Clearly, however, Mullin and his cast love the game. As always at Heritage Square, the script provides a thread of narrative that gets overlaid with a lot of shtick, improvisation and interaction with the audience.
I've spent a lot of words on Annie Dwyer, but the rest of the cast is also terrific. Looking a little like the Frog Footman in Alice in Wonderland, T. J. Mullin is a hoot as Vascombe. He often serves as straight man to the others with his understated reactions, but he can also draw focus effortlessly to himself when that's required. Crawford, with his doleful eyes and the slight ironic grin at the corners of his mouth, makes for a wistful muscleman, unarmed and easily distracted. Johnette Toye -- a gifted and highly physical comedienne in her own right -- is bright and spunky in the uncharacteristically straight role of Helen. Rory Pierce has the all the square-jawed, diffident, upright American charm required as baseball player Dawson. Michael Skillern does a double turn as a sprightly reporter and a pretentious French waiter, and Jon Olson gives a semi-realistic performance as the scout.
Every Heritage Square performance ends with a musical revue. At this point, Alex Crawford takes over the drums, and the cast is joined by Mark Jenkins on bass guitar and the nimble-fingered and endlessly energetic pianist N. Randall Johnson -- whose riffs and songs have been entertaining the audience all evening -- for a medley of baseball songs. All the cast members sing, and you realize that every one of them is a talented musician.
The actual performance is only part of the Heritage Square Music Hall experience. The dinner before the show is generous and tasty and offers choices from roast beef to vegetarian enchiladas. The hokey pre-curtain routine of birthday and anniversary announcements is carried out with humor and energy. None of the wide smiles on stage resembles the practiced grinning of the usual musical-comedy performer. It just feels as if the cast is throwing a down-home, funky, all-American party and inviting everyone to join in. On the night I attended, several people did, including a former Heritage Square pianist who was there with his just-turned-sixteen daughter and her friends. He leapt to the platform to whip out a spirited, stomping rendition of "You're Sixteen (You're Beautiful and You're Mine)."
A little boy of perhaps three was sitting next to me all evening, tired but alert and fascinated. Toward the end of the show, a Nerf ball flew into the audience, and he was able to retrieve it and toss it back to Rory Pierce -- at which point he was overcome by emotion. Bubbling with laughter, he reared upright, gave a joyous little shriek, and toppled face forward into his mother's lap. I think he spoke for all of us.
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