Sex, baseball and religion come together in a pleasurable but uneven new tuner based on the 1988 film “Bull Durham,” preeming at Atlanta’s Alliance Theater. Like the Bulls, the North Carolina farm team of the title, the show has its scruffy charms, renegade spirit and occasional dazzle. But there’s still work to do before this tuner steps up to the “show,” slang here for when a player makes it to the big leagues, especially with a second act that loses its aim once one of its stars steps off the plate. A musical home run or two — or even a triple — would help to bolster a score that flags as the innings wind down.
As source material, the film supplies strong characters, colorful dialogue and a playful and easy-going sensibility that hovers around a musical backdrop of gospel, honky-tonk and ballads. Ron Shelton nicely re-crafts his sly and frisky screenplay for the stage, expanding several of the supporting characters (the team clown, a pious player, a baseball groupie), adding a few updated elements and even creating a new player.
Remaining at the heart of it all is the story’s love triangle: the baseball muse Annie Savoy (Melissa Errico) who selects one rookie to bed, guide and inspire each season; a talented-but-dim pitcher “Nuke” Laloosh (John Behlmann) and a good-but-not-good-enough catcher “Crash” Davis (Will Swenson), characters memorably played in the film by Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins and Kevin Costner.
The first act establishes the fun, presenting the setting, story and character dynamic, with the act ending with a pair of terrific numbers: the aptly-named, crowd-pleasing “Winning” and the battle of the sexes face-off “Still Got It.”
But the show loses its way in the second half, meandering in several directions as its lack of focus becomes more obvious. Flaws include a laggy wrap-up after the triangle loses a character, and the absence of an overriding theme or a standout song.
As the titillating tutor, Errico lands and decisively delivers one of the best roles of her career. She gingerly keeps Annie’s aims noble, not slutty, and her embrace of “the church of baseball” is sweetly heartfelt but as kooky and naive as Nuke’s worldview.
As the jock “with the million dollar arm and five-cent head,” Behlmann gives “Nuke” his own oddball appeal. He’s all limbs, libido and flakiness and yet there’s a disarming boyishness, too, that makes his brashness and ignorance likable.
Swenson has a trickier challenge playing Crash, whose weary nonchalance and low-key sexiness aren’t traits that lend themselves to the spotlight. Shelton and helmer Kip Fagan turn up Crash’s flame for the stage and Swenson has the presence and pipes to make that calibration work. He just needs better material when his character crashes in the second act — and an 11 o’clock number that doesn’t whiff out.
Joshua Bergasse (“Smash”) choreographs team Durham with athletic flair that steps outside the chorus. Derek McLane’s sets serve the goal of location expediency, but one longs for some eye-catching pop to costumer Toni Leslie-James’ outfits for Annie.
Susan Werner’s score, played by a tight nine-piece band, takes the inherent musicality of the film and expands on it with mixed results. Her lyrics, however, have an irreverence fitting for the raffish material, and some songs work especially well for spirit and character. “Pensacola” and “A Heaven for You” are entertaining diversions supplied by supporting players Joel Hatch, Lora Lee Gayer, Jordan Gelber and Brent Bateman, who all deliver solid at-bats.
But numbers for the star players who are looking for something to believe in — baseball, sex, the mysteries of the universe — are less stellar. What the show needs is to believe in the church of the musical, then keep its eye on the ball and swing for the fences.