'Bull Durham' at Alliance Theatre.
‘Bull Durham’ at Alliance Theatre.

By Manning Harris
fmanningh@gmail.com

“Bull Durham,” the Alliance Theatre’s new world premiere musical running through Oct. 5, has so much going for it that I predict that it will join the Alliance’s roster of shows to make the jump to Broadway, à la “Aida” and “The Color Purple.” There’ll be some tweaking, of course, but it will happen; just watch.

Based on the iconic 1988 film written and directed by Ron Shelton starring Susan Sarandon, Kevin Costner and Tim Robbins, we know right off the bat that the source material works: It’s funny, quirky, sexy and touchingly human. By the way, the Alliance recommends “Bull Durham” for audiences 16 and up; that’s your PSA for the day.

Mr. Shelton also writes the book for the play; the music and lyrics are by Susan Werner; direction by Kip Fagan; outstanding, witty choreography by Joshua Bergasse—when is the last time you saw baseball bats twirled in a musical number?

As many will know, “Bull Durham” is set in the world of minor league baseball in the 1980’s, mainly in Durham, North Carolina; the Durham Bulls are the featured team. Meet Annie Savoy, a baseball earth mother, who worships at the “church of baseball,” here played by Melissa Errico. This metaphysical muse selects a player each season whom she will school in the physics of baseball and the temple of love. Annie is a brilliant, comic creation: magnetic, beautiful, utterly fascinating to watch.

This summer Annie’s in a bit of quandary because she must pick between “Crash” Davis (Will Swenson), a reliable, experienced catcher, and “Nuke” Laloosh (John Behlmann), a rookie pitcher with a “million dollar arm and a five-cent head.” The team managers expect Crash to help transform the likable hayseed to a “Show” quality professional pitcher.

About “The Show.” This is the term the players use to refer to the big time, the big leagues that every player dreams of; but as the saying goes—many are called, few are chosen. Crash once spent about three weeks in The Show, and he speaks fondly and reverently about it to an enraptured audience (his fellow players). The concept of The Show is perfect; for everyone, even non-baseball fans, has his/her own idea of what “making it,” moving to the big time, would be for one’s own life.

So you could say that “Bull Durham” is a baseball story for those who don’t like baseball. That’s another reason this musical play is bound for The Show—Broadway—in my opinion. It can and does appeal to anyone.

Of course, the performances of the three principle actors, and the chemistry among them, are crucial.

Will Swenson (whom I saw in Broadway’s 2009 knockout revival of “Hair”) has the goods as Crash: He’s handsome, a fine singer and actor, and most important has the talent to bring real pathos to the part, which is the least flashy of the three. Crash is in the twilight of his career and knows it; he and Nuke are automatic rivals for Annie. But still, Crash is decent and professional enough to impart valuable advice to his younger rival. Crash sees that Nuke is Show-bound; and he’s not about to stand in Nuke’s way.

It’s probably too bad that Melissa Errico will inevitably be compared to Susan Sarandon, and it’s also pointless. Ms. Errico is an excellent singer, a Tony-nominated actor (so is Mr. Swenson), and brings a nice sense of fun to a part that’s built for fun. But if she’s going to The Show (you know by now I mean Broadway), I think she needs to loosen up a bit more and swing for the fences and radiate that naïve mythic earthiness that Sarandon had. This is not the time for Katharine Hepburn and her calla lilies. I’m rooting for Ms. Errico; there’s no reason she can’t go all the way with Annie—so to speak.

That leaves John Behlmann’s Nuke. His is a brilliantly funny piece of physical comedy, a sort of cornpone Jim Carrey (another comparison people will inevitably make). But I think Director Kip Fagan should pull him back a bit and let Behlmann just be. He’s already got the required youth, sexy goofiness, and naiveté the part requires. He just needs to lay back a bit; he deserves to go to The Show, too. Mr. Behlmann’s performance is in large part a directorial decision; so have at it, Mr. Fagan.

Lora Lee Gayer’s Millie and Jake Boyd’s Jimmy are sparkling and funny. “Every Woman Deserves to Wear White,” and we’re rooting for this couple.

Susan Werner’s score is sort of roadhouse honky-tonk, gospel, and very clever. I can’t identify a clear “hit,” but at this stage of the game that means little. The music swings and carries us along.

There are so many fine supporting players (such as Atlanta’s Randi Garza) I can’t mention them here. This is a cast of committed professionals, and they’re thrilling to watch. I’m grateful to them all.

I love Jeff Croiter’s lighting and Derek McLane’s set design. No stage in town can outshine the Alliance when they’re cooking, and they’re cooking here.

“Bull Durham’s” secret weapon is the love that the players have for one another; when they huddle in the middle of a game to discuss Millie and Jake’s wedding presents and Nuke’s jammed chakras, they totally won my heart. They’re not in The Show and they know it, but their shared humanity and love are lovely to behold.

All right—to make it to the Big Apple the show has to tighten up and lose some dead weight about three-fourths of the way into the second act. Call in the play doctors; this show deserves a Broadway run (The Show!), and this tweaking must be done.

Frankly, I had a ball at “Bull Durham”; you will, too. It will only get better and better.

For tickets and information, visit alliancetheatre.org.

Collin Kelley

Collin Kelley has been the editor of Atlanta Intown for two decades and has been a journalist and freelance writer for 35 years. He’s also an award-winning poet and novelist.

8 replies on “Theatre Review: ‘Bull Durham’ at the Alliance”

  1. Well said…

    As long time season ticket holders, and with more than a little skepticism (baseball set to music?), this proved to be one of our most enjoyable evenings ever at The Alliance.

  2. Well said…

    As long time season ticket holders, and with more than a little skepticism (baseball set to music?), this proved to be one of our most enjoyable evenings ever at The Alliance.

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