Marriott’s Lincolnshire Theatre
Even the best ball games often provide only a few truly memorable moments. What makes sitting in the ballpark for three hours worthwhile is the fabulous summer weather and the beauty of the white ball sailing over the green field. Similarly, this Marriott’s Lincolnshire Theatre production of The First features an outstanding lineup of performers and a few great plays, but there are also quite a few dull moments. The experience is often quite pleasant, but it might benefit from such distractions as beer vendors and concession stands.
With lyrics and a book cowritten by Broadway heavy hitter Martin Charnin (perhaps best known as the lyricist for Annie), The First turns Jackie Robinson’s storied journey across the color barrier into an old-fashioned American musical, celebrating the onetime Negro League star’s fight against racial prejudice to become the Brooklyn Dodgers’ 1947 Rookie of the Year. Charnin and coauthor Joel Siegel focus on owner Branch Rickey’s ground-breaking signing of America’s first black major-league baseball player and Robinson’s first season with the team, condensing a couple of years into one.
The First opens with the Dodgers blowing the final game of the 1946 season, after which scout Clyde Sukeforth, manager Leo Durocher, and Branch Rickey (Joel Hatch) discuss signing the Kansas City Monarchs’ shortstop Jack Roosevelt Robinson (Alton Fitzgerald White). At first unsure as to whether Rickey’s offer is genuine or whether he’s just making a token gesture to “this year’s nigger,” Robinson takes the train to New York and signs with the Dodgers, fulfilling his lifelong dream to be “the first.”
With the exception of shortstop Pee Wee Reese, Robinson’s Dodgers teammates treat him badly, threatening to initiate a team strike if he’s allowed to play. But eventually Robinson overcomes the racism of his teammates and of the white Brooklyn fans, gaining their grudging respect with his athletic prowess and his gentlemanly demeanor. In the last game of the season, Robinson steals home to win the National League pennant and his teammates hold him aloft while white and black fans alike cheer and jump for joy. It certainly wasn’t the end of racism in America or even in baseball, but as Rickey, Jackie, and Jackie’s wife, Rachel, sing, “It’s a Beginning.”
Charnin, Siegel, and composer Bob Brush definitely have the material for a terrific musical, but the book is pedestrian and the songs, though beautifully sung in this production, are largely forgettable. By concentrating on the earliest years of Robinson’s career, the authors play it safe, avoiding the ball player’s controversial side as a vocal supporter of the civil rights movement and as a gadfly on the American political scene. This is a saintly, soft-spoken Robinson, pared down to a man who’s “got a dream” and whose characteristics, as he tells future wife Rachel, are “no smoking, no drinking, and I’m gorgeous.”
An Etch-A-Sketch approach to character development is taken toward most of the other characters too, from the good-hearted, noble Rachel to the simple, well-meaning Reese, from the evil, buffoonish (fictional) Dodgers pitcher Casey Higgins to the nosy, scandal-mongering members of the press.
Charnin–such an accomplished, clever lyricist elsewhere–here pelts the listener with one cliche after another. At the prospect of joining the Dodgers, Robinson sings that “All my life has been aimed at this moment,” and we’re informed that “the moment belongs to me as much as it does to the brotherhood of man.” Inviting Robinson to contemplate the historical significance of signing into the major leagues, Rickey asks him to “Feel the results of our little handshake. Feel how, my God, you have made the land shake.” We learn that “a door’s begun to open.” And though Charnin is attempting to capture the spirit of a different time, his assertion that Robinson is “shiny as a copper penny” and flashes a “toothpaste smile” still made me squirm. Brush’s score is an uneasy mixture of swing and easy-listening styles, often sounding more appropriate for a Disney movie than a Broadway show.
This Chicago premiere of The First (which opened, and closed after 37 performances, on Broadway in the fall of 1981) has been given a truly excellent production, with an abundance of talent onstage. Though Michael Duff’s musical direction and David Siegel’s arrangements give Brush’s sappy score a decidedly bar-mitzvah-band feel, the performers knock their songs out of the park, particularly White and Angela Lockett as Jackie and Rachel. The title song is probably not strong enough to be sung four times in the first act, but each of White’s renditions of it sends shivers up the spine. And Lockett’s masterful, contemplative exposure of Rachel’s loneliness among a group of white baseball wives in “There Are Days and There Are Days” is worth the price of admission in itself. You want to strangle the PA announcer who breaks into Lockett’s showstopper, detracting from her sublime performance. The big, splashy production numbers–like the lampoon of racist stereotypes in “Dancin’ off Third” and the spring-training workout song “Bloat”–though rather irrelevant to the plot have been choreographed with a biting sense of humor by Mark S. Hoebee and Kenny Ingram and are well executed by the cast.
Dyanne Earley’s direction accomplishes a virtual miracle by making the Marriott’s comparatively small space seem as well equipped for baseball as Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium. The slow-motion montages for the game sequences seem hokey at first, but they create an undeniably moving collection of images in the musical’s finale. Marriott’s powerful lineup have stepped up to the plate and launched The First just over the fence. But unfortunately the wind blowing from the book and score have forced what should have been a home run into foul territory.