It’s remembered most fondly as a sports movie and as a romance, but Bull Durham also gravitates around one of the most intriguing, complex female characters in film — the fascinating Annie Savoy. She’s the center of the new world premiere musical, as well, which, despite some tattered moments, is satisfying and faithful to the source material.
Running through October 5 at the Alliance Theatre, Bull Durham has been adapted by Ron Shelton, who wrote and directed the movie — considered by many as the greatest sports movie ever filmed — based on his own experiences as a minor league ball player. Durham, North Carolina, is home to the minor league Bulls, and Annie Savoy (Melissa Errico), who subscribes to the Church of Baseball, picks one new player each year to educate in and out of the bedroom. What she gives them, she theorizes, lasts their entire life, while what they give her lasts around six months.
This season the new sensation in town is Ebby Calvin “Nuke” Laloosh (John Behlmann), a young and wild pitcher. Also new to the team is Crash Davis (Will Swenson), a minor league lifer who was in The Show (the big leagues) for a glorious three weeks. He’s now the new Bulls catcher and the mentor for an initially resistant Nuke. Although she has set her sights on Nuke, Annie finds herself attracted to Crash — and vice versa.
World premieres, especially musicals, can often bring with them mixed goods, especially as a new creative team pieces it all together. That’s something of the case here, but certainly not to the extent of the Alliance’s problematic Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, in 2012.
New York director Kip Fagan and his choreographer Joshua Bergasse (an Emmy winner for TV’s Smash) do a mostly dandy job of staging this, integrating indoor and outdoor action, from moments at the field to the neighborhood bar to quieter (and not so quiet) times at Annie’s house.
It’s a pleasant surprise how well Shelton’s 1988 work comes to the stage so fluidly. The new musical follows the movie closely, save for a few new characters in the late innings. Where it could use some relief help is with the character of Annie. Errico is a talented, very capable actress and singer, but her Annie never becomes the larger-than-life woman she needs to be. Fagan and Shelton have almost envisioned her as a neighbor-down-the-street-type, when she should be anything but. Perhaps it’s because Susan Sarandon made the character her own in the film, or because of the layers of the role, but Errico is less imposing than she needs to be.
Her costar Behlmann is a delightful presence, even if he needs to tone it down a bit in the early goings-on. While Annie is the grand jewel of the movie, in the musical it’s Crash, played impeccably by Swenson (taking a break from Les Mis on Broadway for this role.) He’s easily the most fascinating presence onstage. Swenson doesn’t just do a Kevin Costner impersonation either. His Crash is tired, a touch cynical, and ready to leave the game, but he still has his dignity and pride. Swenson’s fine voice and the manner in which he underplays the character is a very successful combination.
The large ensemble cast is well chosen. Particularly strong are Lora Lee Gayer’s groupie Millie and Jake Boyd’s religious Jimmy — who begin an unanticipated relationship — and Brent Bateman and Jordan Gelber as Larry and Skip, the pitching coach and manager. Technically, too, Bull Durham is a triumph, from Derek McLane’s ever-rotating set to Toni-Leslie James’ impressive costuming.
One of the most invigorating elements here is the score by musician/songwriter Susan Werner, working on her first theater production. In all, she has crafted 18 new songs, performed by a nine-person band.
It’s a varied score, with ballads, reprises, a little country and a hip-hop number that has every reason to stink but doesn’t. Certainly some of the numbers will change and evolve over time, but this is a really eclectic mix, and Werner has done her homework in stitching it together. “A Heaven For You,” a bouncy duet between Jimmie and Millie, is a highlight.
Yet Bull Durham does have some structural issues. The most assured, crowd-pleasing number in the entire production — “Winning,” a hummable, upbeat song where the team starts to find success — should end the first act on a high note, but instead Fagan and Werner throw a few more songs in afterward. That means Act II, which introduces an unnecessary character, feels a little padded and disjointed. It should focus on the courtship between Crash and Annie, but it strays a little too much. Werner also seems to use most of her strongest work in that first act. Those elements can be fixed without tremendous effort, it would seem.
If there’s a box score on Bull Durham, it would be a few bobbles here and there, and one costly error, but ultimately a W. Like a lot of world premieres, where this production heads next is anyone’s guess, but its future seems bright, especially with many of these players in the batter’s box.