So, what’s next — golf? Scribe-for-hire Eric Simonson and producers Fran Kirmser and Tony Ponturo have this factory assembly-line thing going with pro sports organizations: First came “Lombardi,” backed by the National Football League, then “Magic / Bird” with the National Basketball Association, and now, “Bronx Bombers,” which has the blessing of the Yankees and Major League Baseball. Marketing this one might be more of a challenge, though. With the exception of the baseball-crazy Japanese, can you sell the Broadway tourist audience on this rah-rah cheer for the home team?
The “Field of Dreams” show concept (credited to lead producer Kirmser) is actually kind of touching. At the time of the play, the Yankees are in such a moral funk that sainted coach Yogi Berra (Peter Scolari, pleased as punch to be performing this labor of love) must summon its late, great heroes from beyond the grave to save the club from self-immolation.
The story begins in Boston in 1977, when Yankees manager Billy Martin (Keith Nobbs, jumpy as a cat) has his infamous public meltdown in Fenway Park over a lackluster play by prima donna Reggie Jackson (Francois Battiste). Team captain Thurman Munson (the very mellow Bill Dawes) is understandably put out, but coach Yogi Berra (Scolari) is positively devastated by this unseemly display of poor sportsmanship. More than anyone else in the ball club, Yogi is afraid that the Yankees are falling apart as a team — which to his way of thinking means that civilization is dead and the world as we know it is coming to an end.
That first scene is played in a style of heightened realism, with the stress on the laugh lines. “I really didn’t say all the things I said,” says Yogi, who proceeds to trot out some of the best lines he never said. Nobbs does a pretty funny impression of Billy, playing the famously volatile manager as a twitchy neurotic who lives in a state of high anxiety, erupting in a rage or bursting into tears at the least provocation. Battiste has perfected Reggie’s distinctive swagger, the swinging disco dancer with the snappy clothes and the sexy moves.
All this macho posturing boils down to a clash of individual personalities and, beyond that, an identity crisis for the whole team. Paranoid neurotic though he may be, Martin stands for traditional team values, while Reggie is the shooting star who represents a new age with new values, the ones that money can buy.
It’s a fight, literally and ideologically, which suits the theater-in-the-round configuration of the stage at Circle in the Square. Beowulf Boritt’s neat set of the hotel room where Billy Martin and Reggie have their confrontation even looks a little like a fight ring.
The Circle in the Square also has a sophisticated system of traps, which is well utilized for a second act dream sequence in which Yogi and faithful wife Carmen (Tracy Shayne, Scolari’s real-life spouse) host an elaborate dinner for all the Yankee immortals. A fully dressed banquet table — china, silver, flowers, the works — pops up from beneath the stage to greet the rather dazed looking ballplayers who have been summoned from the great beyond to reaffirm the enduring solidarity of the team, and maybe teach that one-man-band Reggie Jackson something about team loyalty.
This is what will bring out the fans — cameo appearances from the greatest ballplayers in the annals of Yankee history. Big, brash, eternally boyish Mickey Mantle (Dawes). The greatest slugger of them all, Babe Ruth (C.J. Wilson), who comes onstage wearing a raccoon coat, smoking a big cigar and carrying a case of booze. Cool, collected Joe DiMaggio (Chris Henry Coffey). The under-appreciated pioneer, Elston Howard (Battiste). The nicest guy in the world, Derek Jeter (Christopher Jackson). And the beloved and tragic Lou Gehrig (John Wernke), a mystical presence who awes them all.
“I heard one of our guys was in trouble,” says the ethereal Gehrig, in a show of the Yankee team solidarity that Yogi feared no longer meant anything to the new crop of highly paid, self-promoting superstars.
These Olympian immortals don’t actually say or do much of dramatic note in a play that’s noticeably lacking in drama. But it’s interesting to get their perspectives on the vicissitudes of big league baseball over the years. Mickey Mantle, for example, blames the Sixties for the seismic shift when ballplayers went from playing on teams to performing as personalities. But their collective presence is enough to reassure Yogi that they embody the spirit of the Yankees and that spirit will live on forever. And maybe that’s all it takes to make the fans happy.