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'Bronx Bombers' brings baseball alive on Broadway

Poignant production about Yankees legends celebrates Opening Night

NEW YORK -- It was Babe Ruth's 119th birthday Thursday, and it was the first day that any pitchers and catchers reported to Spring Training. Fittingly, The Bambino stood at the head of a table that night in New York in his No. 3 pinstriped uniform and bellowed: "Baseball is America's game!"

Indeed. The Babe is back and so is baseball.

America's game premiered on Broadway at the Circle in the Square Theatre, with the Opening Night of "Bronx Bombers." The production features a cast of nine, naturally, and tells a universal story of teamwork and understanding others to overcome obstacles. It is backed by the Yankees and Major League Baseball, and what better night to debut than the anniversary of the birth of the greatest Yankee of them all?

"I'm surprised they don't do it more often," rock legend and longtime Yankees fan Dee Snider said of the production, arriving on the red carpet before the premiere. "How are you going to get sports fans to Broadway? Do a show about a sport team, you know? Arts cannot beat sports. When we do shows, you never go up against the World Series or Super Bowl, ever. So if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. Do a show about a sports team and maybe you'll have a hit."

"Bronx Bombers" is written by playwright Eric Simonson and co-produced by Fran Kirmser and former Anheuser-Busch executive Tony Ponturo. It is the third such collaboration by those three, following "Lombardi" (about Vince Lombardi) and "Magic/Bird" (Magic Johnson and Larry Bird). The producers are confident that this will be the biggest, drawing locally on the power of America's most famous sports brand (Jorge Posada already has seen a preview performance).

Theatergoers were surrounded by Yankees memorabilia and mystique, with the familiar white frieze surrounding them during the play, a throwback to the old Stadium. They posed for pictures during intermission with the 1977 World Series trophy, relevant because the script begins with the Reggie Jackson-Billy Martin tempest from that June, threatening to blow up the very franchise.

At least that is how Yogi Berra sees it in the play. Berra is played admirably by Peter Scolari. Berra's wife, Carmen, is played by Scolari's real-life wife, Tracy Shayne, a great chemistry, and together the Berras are the glue. It is appropriate, because Berra is The Link -- he knew Ruth and today is 88 and a friend to active Bombers.

Berra frets over the Jackson-Martin saga, the part of the play where Francois Battiste practically steals the entire show. Battiste plays Jackson and Elston Howard, and his portrayal of the former is so spot on, it is uncanny. "You can't stand the enormity of me," Jackson tells a furious Martin (Keith Nobbs), as Berra and Thurman Munson (Bill Dawes) look on quizzically.

Battiste's Jackson hits on social mores as well, using the n-word in the play to describe how he felt perceived at a time when he was the first black Yankee to unabashedly bask in the glory and trappings of superstardom. Battiste drew a loud ovation as he left the set following the Reggie-Billy scene. Arlene Howard, widow of the first black Yankee, was among attendees and told Battiste he "did Elston justice." In so doing, Battiste's character represented the contrast in styles from Jackson, capturing the calm, less boat-rocking demeanor possessed by her husband.

"The energy was just fantastic," Battiste said afterward at the cast party, three blocks away in the Edison Ballroom. "As actors, we were just trying to ride the wave of that energy. I think the play is going to be accepted for a variety of reasons. Some people see this being a baseball play. Other people see it as being all about teamwork, which can just filter into any walk of life -- corporate, any type of industry.

"One is not better than the whole. It always takes a group of individuals to bring an idea to light. That's what this play is talking about. People aren't always going to get along. But as long as you do your job on the field, it's about being perfect on the field, in your job, and that's kind of what it's about."

That message comes to life in the second half of the show, featuring the aforementioned table gathering in which The Bambino gets a throne. He is played by C.J. Wilson, and not the Angels pitcher. Berra is suddenly surrounded by even more Yankees legends, including Lou Gehrig (John Wernke), Joe DiMaggio (Chris Henry Coffey), Mickey Mantle (also played by Dawes) and Derek Jeter (Christopher Jackson).

"I may be nostalgic," Berra says, "but that don't mean I like to live in the past."

Yogi and Carmen Berra were unable to attend the opener, but sons Dale and Larry, along with Larry's daughter and reporter Lindsay Berra, were in the front row.

"Interesting. Interesting," Dale Berra said of the production. "I thought it was a great tribute to the Yankees and the era and the whole thing."

And Scolari's portrayal of his father? "I think it was all right," Berra said. "I think my dad was a lot more graceful than portrayed. He was a graceful, amazing athlete. I think he plays him a little too clumsy for me, but that's just me. I think he did a great job capturing the essence of Dad trying to hold the team together and the glue of the Yankees and all that."

"It was a bit surreal, because you're constantly comparing everything the actors do with what my grandparents actually do," Lindsay Berra said. "I would say, 'Oh, Grandpa wouldn't walk like that.' Or, 'Ooh, Grammy moves her hands just like that.' I think we watch it in a very different way. I was having that conversation with Arlene and Sheryl Howard, too, and they watched [Battiste] and say, 'Oh, Elston would've have done that,' or, 'Dad wouldn't have done that.'

"So it's a peculiar or surreal way to look at it, but the whole thing was just really great. It brings back a lot of memories of a lot of stories that my grandparents have told me, and I think it's doing that for a lot of fans as well, and I think that's why people are so drawn to it."

There are two particular poignant scenes in Simonson's enjoyable script.

One is a silent moment when Jeter hands a modern Louisville Slugger to Gehrig, who takes it to demonstrate Ruth's nonpareil swing to everyone else. In that moment, Gehrig forgets Ruth's crass and annoying traits, bowing to the legend.

"It's sort of the tradition of the Yankees being handed down from generation to generation and back again," Simonson says of that scene.

The other moment is the final one, also silent, and utterly haunting. Gehrig is in the center of the stage, on the Yankees logo. He is holding his cap aloft, and then he looks down. The spotlight dims. The stage is dark, the play is over, and suddenly you realize that you just saw the Iron Horse at the end of his "Luckiest Man" speech, one of the famed moments in baseball lore.

"From the very beginning, I had that in mind for the end of the play," Simonson explained. "In fact, in the original draft, it was just Lou on stage, with none of the other Yankees around him. And I had imagined even a cluster of microphones coming out from the stage floor. But as we worked on it, I realized that would be a little intrusive. The idea of bringing all the immortals back on stage with Lou seemed right. I feel like I achieved both."

Mark Newman is enterprise editor of Read and join other baseball fans on his community blog.

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