“Bull Durham” Plays Ball: Musical Adaptation Hits the Stage in Atlanta

Written by Christine Kirk | Photography courtesy of The Alliance Theater

_D8M2670“Crash” loves Annie. “Nuke” loves Annie. Annie loves baseball. This playbill description neatly sums up the tale unfolding on the Alliance stage through Oct. 5. Adapted from the 1988 film by original screenwriter, Ron Shelton, “Bull Durham” premiered on stage Sept. 13 in Atlanta. With a positive reception, Shelton hopes the production could eventually make it to Broadway.

But, this isn’t your average Broadway musical. Composer Susan Werner deftly makes her musical theater debut with a score of smartly written country/rock-influenced songs bound to get stuck in your head. Songs like “Every Woman Deserves to Wear White” and “A Heaven for You” hit the mark, with just the right amount of obscene gestures and innuendo to garner laughs from the audience. It’s not often you get to see an over-the-top dance number featuring a fully decked-out bride and her bridesmaids raising their middle fingers to judgmental naysayers.

While transformed into a musical, “Bull Durham” stays mostly true to the original story – a tale of a muddled love triangle between two ball players, naïve-but-talented buffoon Ebby Calvin “Nuke” Laloosh (John Behlmann) and angsty, dejected veteran “Crash” Davis (Will Swenson), who both have a thing for the sultry “high-priestess of baseball” Annie Lavoy (Melissa Errico).

Swenson describes his character, despite being down-and-out, as hopeful: “I love that “Crash” is a dreamer … he loves what he does but just hasn’t gotten his big break. He’s at a crossroads in his life, trying to figure out where the most value and reward in life comes from.” We see this mirrored in Annie Lavoy. Annie’s sass and wit carries much of the show, but Errico’s solo performance of “A Little Time to Myself” gives us a glimpse behind the façade and subtly hints to her loneliness. Errico described Annie’s trajectory, saying, “One day she starts realizing she is changing and life has many chapters.” A self-awareness that might be overlooked as she’s reciting racy passages of Whitman’s “I Sing the Body Electric” and teaching “Nuke” the benefit of breathing through his eyelids. Behlmann accounts for Nuke’s experience too, that “in the end, it’s really a coming-of-age story about a young man becoming a real adult (and one hell of a pitcher.)”

Set designer Derek McLane puts together a backdrop that focuses most on performance and lends itself beautifully to the seamless transitions that often arise from the action. In the first boudoir moment between Nuke and Annie, the set transitions mid-scene, with several ball players rolling out the bed and hilariously fluffing the pillow before prancing off stage. Werner keeps the comedy coming, cutting some of the awkwardness of the quasi-bondage moment with lyrics like “Let’s get to the action, it feels like I’m in traction!” from a tied-up Nuke, a line delivered with cartoonish accuracy by Behlmann.

And I can’t skip over choreographer Joshua Bergasse, no doubt responsible for one of my favorite moments. A brawl breaks out among the players and what follows is an absurd slow-motion sequence that is hilarious, impressive and down-right acrobatic. All this is skillfully accomplished in live-action, with a momentary break of what I can only call “silly ballet.”

Much like film and its collaborative nature, there are too many other notable, award-winning creative people involved in this production to mention here. I expect that “Bull Durham” will get the positive reception it hopes might lead to Broadway after its run here in Atlanta. If that happens, it will be a big win for the team. And as the Durham Bulls will have you singing during (and after!) the show, “winning is better than losing.”

**Some adult content. Appropriate for audiences 16 and up. Visit alliancetheater.org for info.