Welcome to the “the church of baseball.” It’s a place where Annie Savoy teaches young rookies the ways of love and the ways of baseball. But her system is about to be thrown a wrench when “Crash” Davis joins the Durham Bulls.
With a book by screenwriter Ron Shelton and music and lyrics by Susan Werner, Bull Durham is directed by Kip Fagan. Based on the hit movie, the musical weaves a tale of Annie Savoy, “Crash” Davis and Ebby Calvin “Nuke” Laloosh and the love triangle that unfolds off the baseball field.
Giving the character a down-home attitude, Melissa Errico is charming at times, but overall, she never hits her stride. Vocally, she is strong. When she sings the moving “Little Time to Myself,” she is at her best. She has big shoes to fill with the movie ingrained in our collective consciousness. There’s gravitas that the character needs, and Errico doesn’t deliver it consistently through the show. Based on the character’s reputation, you would expect her to be a little more free spirited and passionate instead of having the tight-laced and cynical persona that Errico displays.
Will Swenson captivates as “Crash” Davis. Not only does he bring a sense of experience and wisdom, but he also creates a fresh character that transcends the movie role. His powerful voice soars above the rest of the cast, and he truly is the stand-out star of the show. Providing a worthy foe, John Behlmann’s Nuke is cocky yet likeable because of the boy-next-door qualities he gives the character, but his attempts to be goofy are not believable and seem contrived.
Shelton’s book keeps the familiar love triangle from the movie with humorous dialogue and interesting characters. Just as on the baseball diamond or in the locker room, the language can be a bit crass for some traditional musical theatergoers, but it won’t detract from the overall experience.
There’s even a nod to hometown audiences in a scene mentioning Greg Maddux (who never played with the Bulls) as one of Annie “students”. Baseball fans will forgive the literary license since the scene is very humorous. Having Nuke appear in a Braves uniform may seem just like a nod to Atlanta, but actually it isn’t since the Bulls were the A-ball affiliate of the team in the 1980s.
The only problem with the book is that the minor characters of Jimmy (Jake Boyd), a player turned manager in training, and Millie (Lora Lee Gayer), the owner’s daughter, overshadow the leads. It creeps up in the first act with the outstanding duet “A Heaven for You,” and it takes center stage during the second act in “Everyone Woman Deserves to Wear White.” Their story takes the focus off the main storyline due to these two numbers being a couple of the show’s best.
Adding to the familiar story, the intricate music by Werner seamlessly blends gospel, pop and blues into a wonderful score. From the opening number, aptly called “Opening Day” to the hook filled “Winning,” the show sounds fresh and inviting. Yet, there is not a clear showstopper. “Winning,” may be the closest thing it has to one. Swenson’s 11 o’clock number “Catcher,” wants to be a powerful showstopper, but it oddly doesn’t resonate with the audience despite his explosive delivery.
The choreography by Joshua Bergasse utilizes the baseball theme well with the fun to watch and visually pleasing movements. Adding to the show is the breezy set design by Derek McLane. The lighting design by Jeff Croiter blends in naturally and gives the stage a nice balance.
While the Braves may be frustrating you with inconsistent playing, this musical provides the escape from the stress of the real world of baseball. Like Rock of Ages, it is a musical that husbands won’t have to grudgingly go along with their wives to the theater. It may be a love story, but, as with the movie, the baseball story is strong enough to draw in the non-musical fans.
Bull Durham runs through October 5, 2014 at Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre. For tickets and more information, please visit the theater’s website. The show’s runtime is around two and half hours with an intermission.
– Kenny Norton