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Theater Review: Diamonds

Can a theater reviewer enjoy a musical about a sport she despises? Yes is the resounding answer provided by the Lost Nation Theater's delight-filled baseball revue, Diamonds. The energetic ensemble cast brought a winsome enthusiasm to Tim Tavcar's skillfully re-imagined, family-friendly show. And the dynamic, gospel-infused singing of baritone Gordon Michaels provided the grand slam that elevated the evening into a major-league success.

Diamonds is not about baseball's steroid-addled, dollar-driven present: millionaire athletes whining about a "12-strikes-and-you're-out" drug policy, and billionaire owners lobbying for taxpayer-funded, corporate-logoed ballparks. Rather, the musical celebrates the sport's deep roots in America's history and psyche with a fast-paced mix of songs and sketches. Although Act I focuses on the 19th century and Act II covers events up to the 1970s or so, the show is more a series of vignettes than an actual chronology.

The simple ballad "What You'd Call a Dream," sung by Michaels with supple grace and strength, both opens and closes the show. The desire to play ball represented the urge to dream and the need to belong, and it cut across lines of class, gender and race: immigrants who wanted to assimilate, women who wanted to shatter Victorian stereotypes, blacks who were tired of separate and unequal, kids who just wanted to be picked for a team, any team.

Diamonds covers these social issues without ever becoming didactic or boring. The show's tone is deliciously tongue-in-cheek, and the ensemble demonstrated great skill in executing the over-the-top comedy. Top laugh-getters were LNT regulars Mark Roberts and Judy Milstein -- both dramatic standouts from this spring's production of Stone -- whose veteran vaudevillian high jinks held the summer company's greener members to a high humor standard.

As an immigrant trying to understand the national pastime, Jon Ginn played the Bugs Bunny cartoon version of Maurice Chevalier -- complete with a cardinal-red beret and painted-on twirly mustache -- singing "Take Me Out to the Ballpark" in French. As suffragettes, Rachel Black and Rachel Dyer used a playfully militant declamatory style as they marched around the stage with placards and recounted the history of the Bloomer Girls -- women's teams that barnstormed the country in the 1890s and played against men, to the great consternation of "irate ministers" and indignant "local ladies."

Of course, there was no humor in baseball's most loathsome chapter. Blacks were excluded from Major League play in 1887 after white superstar Cap Anson said he wouldn't take the field with "pin-striped darkies." Michaels' powerful rendition of "Stay in Your Own Back Yard" showed the irony of that bigotry. Between verses of the ballad, Michaels recited the records set by black players such as Satchel Paige, Smoky Joe Williams and Josh Gibson that dwarfed those of Cy Young, Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth. His rich tone drove home the simple tune's plaintive lyrics. "Don't mind what them white folks do / What you suppose they's going to give a black little boy like you / So stay on this side of the high board fence ... / Stay in your own back yard."

Another somber episode in baseball's past became the show's liveliest history lesson. The madcap sketch about the infamous Black Sox scandal was a highlight of hilarity. Jake Ottosen and Nathanael L. Shea joined Ginn, Black and Dyer as waggish caricatures of hardboiled radio-era newsmen, reporting segments of the story from a rotating newsdesk -- a wooden table on casters -- and spinning it around with a flourish each time the tale passed to the next narrator.

Shea's sweet tenor took the lead on the song that followed, "1919," a reflection on the scandal's most memorable casualty, Shoeless Joe Jackson. This number was an example of Diamond's well-balanced emotional pacing: the general mirth tempered by moments of poignancy.

Credit for the effective pacing goes to director Tavcar, who entirely reworked the script of the original 1984 show. He cut many weak scenes, including a pair of baffling racist numbers, and wove in richer source material. With music director Lisa Jablow, he fleshed out the songs from the sketchy score, reshuffled them, and added a few tunes, including "Heart" from Damn Yankees.

More amazingly, Tavcar led his ensemble to lively interpretations of familiar comedic warhorses. Who knew anything fresh could be mined from wheezy American relics such as the dusty poem, "Casey at the Bat," and the antediluvian Abbott and Costello routine, "Who's on First?" In the Bud Abbott role, Roberts shone with fearless comic confidence. The audience laughed as if hearing these ancient lines for the first time.

Blame must be shared, however, for the poor sound balance. Siting the two-person band at the front of the stage may have been part of the problem; vocalists had to sing over the instrument "dugout" to reach the audience. Guitarist Kathleen Keenan adjusted her volume appropriately to support the singers when she accompanied them alone. But the show's greatest weakness was the volume of Jablow's electronic keyboard. Whether it was set to organ, piano or banjo mode, the instrument at times overpowered every soloist, except Michaels. Lyrics were intelligible, for the most part, but the keyboard often drowned out vocal expressiveness and subtlety, especially for the singers with lighter voices like Milstein and Ottosen.

Kevin M. Kelly's charming set was simple yet versatile. The floor was sponge-painted green to simulate grass, and the back wall featured a wooden scoreboard and old-fashioned billboards for products such as Fire-Chief Gasoline, 5-cent bottles of Pepsi-Cola, and Cracker Jack -- "America's Famous Food Confection: The More You Eat, the More You Want." The scoreboard numbers were removable, and in one song cast members sang backup like antic, disembodied Muppets by sticking their faces through the holes.

A set of bleachers on wheels rolled in for some scenes. Part of the back wall discreetly unfolded to admit them, and the actors moved most of the scenery themselves. The bleachers were used to great effect in the rousing conclusion of Act I, "He Threw Out the Ball." Michaels led the ensemble, which wore robes like a church choir, in a raucous revival-meeting number describing how God created baseball. The Boston baritone could have filled Fenway with his mighty sound. As he preached the baseball gospel from atop the spinning bleachers, even the most skeptical soul was converted.

With Diamonds, Tavcar and his hardworking team have achieved a wonderful blend of zest, camp and sincerity. What could have been corny was touching; what could have been cheesy was just good, clean fun. For the audience, it was a toe-tapping, knee-slapping, hand-clapping slice of summertime entertainment. As for rumors that the baseball-hating critic walked out humming "Take Me Out to the Ball Game?" No comment.

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