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‘National Pastime’ more fun than sitting at the ball park

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REVIEW WRITTEN BY TARA LYNN JOHNSON
For Digital First Media

Marty, one of the characters in “National Pastime,” playing at the Bucks County Playhouse (BCP) through April 19, says “I don’t get it” referring to baseball. Me either, Marty. But I do get theater, and I like this show.

It’s 1933 and a radio station in Baker City, Iowa, is going to go under, another victim of the Great Depression. That is, of course, until owner Barry (Spencer Plachy) and his new co-owner Karen (Janine DiVita) create a scheme involving broadcasting imaginary games of a baseball team the town used to love. Hijinks ensue (boy, do they). It’s silly and sentimental, and the cast sells the story so well, you find yourself root, root, rooting for this home team.

Plachy and DiVita are the team’s first hit. Both leads have talent, charisma, and chops. Plachy seemed extremely comfortable in Barry’s eager, bright-eyed, and sincere (yet not sappy) skin. DiVita’s Karen, a serious, no-nonsense gal, seemed a little too stiff in comparison at times. Her voice, however, always flowed, soaring easily and filling the theater to the rafters. DiVita’s singing hit me hard in the feels during a sentimental song in Act II also.

The second hit: the rest of the cast. What a talented group of performers. It’s difficult to single any of them out – they were all so good. Baseball’s fond of threes, though, so MVPs go to these three performers.

First, Matthew Bauman wears many hats (literally and figuratively), dances, sings, and brings smiles every time he’s on stage.

 Will Blum, Stephanie Gibson and Michael Dean Morgan in a scene from "National Pastime." Photo by Mandee Kuenzle.

Will Blum, Stephanie Gibson and Michael Dean Morgan in a scene from “National Pastime.”
Photo by Mandee Kuenzle.

Then, there’s Kelli Maguire. Her character, Mary, is sassy, silly, a sexy spitfire! Oh, and she’s especially talented. I’ve read actors’ resumes and wondered how many use the skills they list at the bottom, things like roller skating, surfing, doing handstands. Kudos, Ms. Maguire, on your baton twirling. Really, first rate.

And finally, there’s Stephanie Gibson. I love actors who can steal almost every scene they’re in, who can take a character that could be chewing the scenery and finesse it into some of the funniest moments in the show. Her Betty Lou is hilarious. Thanks for the cardio – saved me a workout.

The show was directed (coached!) by Broadway’s Hunter Foster, who appeared in “Urinetown” (among other shows). “National Pastime” includes a few sight gags that reminded me of “Urinetown.” As a fan of that show and of comedy in general, I enjoyed them. I also loved seeing the show on the revolving stage. BCP renovated the turntable they’ve had since 1939 and it was a joy to see it in action. It was the perfect staging choice for this non-stop show with all of its moving parts. Even the stage was moving to keep the action going.

The costumes by Jennifer Caprio were perfectly reminiscent of the era. The choreography by Lorin Latarro was energetic and entertaining.

The music in general though wasn’t up to the same standard. The song “We Are America” in Act II had people rolling in the aisles – and for locals, the homage to Washington crossing the Delaware will bring tears (of laughter) to your eyes. Unfortunately, for a musical, the rest of the songs weren’t that memorable. Usually, there’s at least one you can leave the theater humming. With “National Pastime,” there aren’t. Also, the first act is overloaded with songs. The characters shared so much exposition through singing, I thought it was going to be the first comedic operetta I’ve ever attended. Luckily, Act II had better pacing, less songs, and more talking.

 Kelli Maguire and Andrew Kober in a scene from "National Pastime." Photo by Mandee Kuenzle

Kelli Maguire and Andrew Kober in a scene from “National Pastime.”
Photo by Mandee Kuenzle

 

Speaking of fewer songs, the only other musical issue is the overuse of the Jingle Girls. All three women are talented singers, which we see as part of the ensemble, too. But almost every scene change had the ladies performing a jingle for a company that would advertise on the radio. A little goes a long way, and some scene changes with a darkened stage and just an undercurrent of instrumental music would have been welcomed.

 

All in all, though, “National Pastime” is a fun, entertaining, nostalgic musical, reminiscent of shows like “42nd Street,” “Guys and Dolls,” and “The Music Man.” There aren’t peanuts or Cracker Jacks for this “ball game,” but there are talented performers and lots of laughs. The musical score doesn’t hit a home run, but the actors were batting a thousand. Go, team! And go, everybody else, to enjoy a fun night at the theater.

 IF YOU GO

What:  “National Pastime”

When:  Through April 19

Where:  Bucks County Playhouse, 70 S. Main St., New Hope.

Tickets:  Starting at $29.

Info.:  Call (215) 862-2121 or visit www.bcptheater.org.

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