You almost have to admire the chutzpah of the producers of “Bronx Bombers,” a dramatically inert play about the Yankees that was poorly received when it ran briefly Off-Broadway but nevertheless now has opened in Broadway’s much larger Circle in the Square Theater. They apparently aim to make their show not just critic-proof, but immune to the opinion even of regular Broadway theatergoers.
Producer Fran Kirmser, who gives herself the added title of “conceiver” of the show, has implied in interviews that it doesn’t really matter if the reaction to “Bronx Bombers” is any better on Broadway than it was when Primary Stages presented it Off-Broadway at the Duke, where it had a limited run, closing 11 days after it opened. The cachet of being a “Broadway show,” she’s said, will draw crowds in future productions elsewhere.
Wasn’t this more or less the strategy of “Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark”?
Maybe it will work better for Kirmser and her partner Tony Ponturo, a former sports sponsorship marketing executive for Anheuser-Busch, although their first two sports plays on Broadway have yet to earn a profit — Lombardi, a character portrait of a great football coach, which ran for seven months, and Magic/Bird, a portrait of the rivalry and friendship between two great basketball players, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, which closed after 37 performances.
There are a few changes in the Broadway production. The most obvious change is charging twice as much for the top ticket. They clearly invested some money in the scenery – the sets now fall from the ceiling or rise up from beneath the stage, the in-the-round seating is ringed with a backdrop that helps create the aura of a baseball stadium; there’s liberal use of stage smoke.
They’ve given Yogi Berra a few more Yogi-isms in the script, and recast Yogi and his wife with Peter Scolari and his real-life wife Tracy Shayne, keeping the rest of the nine-member cast intact. The two new cast members are impressive; so were the cast members they replaced, Richard Topol and Wendy Makkenda. The cast is not the problem. Indeed, they are the best thing about Bronx Bombers. So remarkable are their impressions, helped by David Woolard’s spot-on (not just pinstripe) costume design and Paul Huntley’s wigs, that most first entrances of the characters during the performance I saw were greeted with cheers, applause or chuckles of recognition.
As Off-Broadway, both the New York Yankees and Major League Baseball are given above-the-title credit for the Broadway production; the producers of the show reportedly have “marketing and licensing agreements” with the team. This is surely why the lobby is fitted with a “Yankees memorabilia museum” – a photograph of Babe Ruth in two-toned shoes standing next to an impossibly young Yogi Berra; a baseball signed by “Mickey Charles Mantle,” in suspiciously legible handwriting. Unlike most actual museums, the items here are on sale – that photograph has a price tag of $410; that baseball is selling for $4,355.
So, everything is a bit richer. But, if any of these changes make any real difference, it’s that the play will now appeal even more strictly to fans of the New York Yankees – preferably those fans who can readily access their inner 11-year-old baseball nerd and dispense with any adult-like critical faculties.
As I wrote in my review of the Off Broadway production, playwright and director Eric Simonson has chosen to present baseball and the Yankees basically in two scenes. The first 45 minutes take place at a Boston hotel room in 1977 where Yogi Berra (Scolari) has set up a meeting to try to broker the peace between Reggie Jackson (Francois Battiste) and Billy Martin (Keith Nobbs), a day after an incident notorious among Yankee fans: Martin, the Yankees manager, pulled Jackson from the game in the middle of an inning for fumbling a ball and allowing Boston Red Sox Jim Rice to make it to second base. Resentments emerge, allusions are made to how baseball has changed but how grateful they each remain to the game, but mostly the characters (including a fourth, team captain Thurman Munson, portrayed by Bill Dawes) reveal their vivid, familiar personality traits — high strung, drunken Billy, hip, self-regarding Reggie, tongue-tied Yogi.
The scene switches to the Berra household, where Carmen Berra (Shayne) is preparing their annual old-timers dinner party. There are some light exchanges (there’s a running gag about potatoes), followed by talk of the tough times the Yankees, and New York City, are undergoing. Yogi, Yankees coach, suspects that owner George Steinbrenner will fire Billy Martin and hire Yogi as manager; his wife doesn’t want him to accept. Carmen tells Yogi to get to bed, things will look better in the morning.
What follows is supposed to be Yogi’s dream (cue the stage smoke): a dinner party with Yankee greats Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Elston Howard, Derek Jeter, who enter one by one, exhibit their best-known character traits, swap stories, and bicker.
The most unforgivable moment during this occurs when Lou Gehrig stumbles, obviously the beginning of the disease that would paralyze and then kill him, goosed with dramatic lighting. This was ridiculous when I saw it Off-Broadway, and has somehow escalated in my mind to offensive – exploitative piggy-backing on the audience’s sympathies. Speaking of which — the last scene, something of an epilogue, takes place on September 21, 2008, the last game in the old Yankee Stadium.
Watching this sappy calculated lump of a show for a second time, I experienced an epiphany: They could have done a one-man show about Yogi Berra, who at age 88 is still around, as is his wife. It could have been a focused bio-drama, amusing, informative, even moving — and artful. It could have drawn in the same demographic that their business strategy aims for….as well as people who go to the theater expecting a story.
Update: Bronx Bombers will play its final performance on March 2, 2014, less than a month after opening.