Bingo Long and His Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings
DreamStreet Theatre & Cabaret
By Adam Langer
With a lot of fine-tuning, some character development, and the addition of some details to the plot, this premiere by DreamStreet Theatre & Cabaret could conceivably win the Tony Award for best musical of 1957. A period piece about Negro League ballplayers in the late 30s, Bingo Long and His Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings feels more like a revival than a new play, with its solid, hummable songs, lovable characters, top-notch orchestra, and flawless cast.
Based on William Brashler's novel (which was made into a 1976 movie featuring Richard Pryor and Billy Dee Williams), the musical focuses on Bingo Long, a fictional African-American Babe Ruth who can "hit that ball a country mile." Finally breaking free from corrupt club owner Sallee Boggs, he forms his own baseball team, the Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings. It's filled with familiar types: the Bible-thumping Goody Two-shoes; the wily veteran pitcher trying to hang on for one more year; the wide-eyed, innocent rookie just off the farm. There's an underdeveloped love story between naive bumpkin Country Joe Calloway and hardened city girl Lonnette, and a few other elements of drama can be found here and there. But for the most part Bingo Long delivers exactly what you might expect from a 50s musical about ballplayers in the 30s: good old-fashioned fun at the ballpark and in raucous juke joints after hours, an accomplished but derivative score, and predictable lyrics.
Composer George Fischoff, who once received a Tony nomination for Georgy!, glides effortlessly in this score from genre to genre without ever developing a distinctive voice for the work. Employing boogie-woogie, traditional blues, patter song, ballads, even a waltz and a barbershop quartet, he essentially creates a period pastiche. And he does a professional enough job of paying homage to a rich period in musical history, but little emerges that doesn't sound recycled. One number even sounds strikingly similar to the warhorse "There's No Business Like Show Business."
The familiarity of Fischoff's melodies is made that much more apparent by Hy Gilbert's lyrics: rather than look for original observations or phrasing, he trots out the blandest, most obvious choices of traditional Broadway tune makers. Figure there might be a song about the humdrum experience of traveling from town to town? Sure enough, Bingo Long begins and ends with the song "The Wheels Keep Turnin'," sung on board the team bus. Expect some male bonding among the fellas? "We're a team," they declare in one of the show's most often reprised bits, which features a record number of show-tune cliches, including "Gotta dream that dream...side by side...soul to soul...that's the way we'll win." That song is rivaled in familiarity by "Country Boy/City Girl," in which Country Joe and Lonnette cringingly bring to mind Donny and Marie Osmond trading off singing country and city songs. And a tune about starting off on one's own reminds us that "it's all in the timing."
Much of the cornball fare succeeds at creating an infectious if not particularly challenging paint-by-numbers enthusiasm. But without the smarts and wit of the baseball musical Damn Yankees or the social conscience of the Jackie Robinson musical biography The First, this show remains about as entertaining and resonant as--well, a professional ball game. The experience may be enjoyable, but who can remember the score a week later?
In 1997--the 50th anniversary of Robinson's breaking the color barrier--there should be more to a story of Negro League ballplayers than a nostalgic, hand-clapping romp. But Hy Gilbert and Ossie Davis's highly sanitized script seems to deliberately soft-pedal the issue of racial segregation, mentioning it only in passing. Though Davis has given his name and considerable reputation to this project, he doesn't seem to have given it his noted skills as a playwright. The dialogue is often sharp, but the remarkably flimsy plot shies away from any potential conflict or pathos.
Confrontations are set up but hardly ever shown onstage. When Bingo decides to violate his contract, break from Boggs's team, and start his own (echoing some of the sentiments expressed in the recent baseball strike), one expects some sort of showdown. But the script allows Bingo and the lads to head out on their own with little apparent resistance. A potentially chilling and moving scene in which sweet Country Joe takes a knife in the chest comes out of nowhere and concludes before it has a chance to register. Soon afterward, as Country Joe lies in the hospital in a touch-and-go state, the team performs the show's most raucous song-and-dance number, giddily stepping out into the audience with foot-stomping glee. And what should be the climactic moment of the show--when Bingo, beaten up by gamblers, steps up to the plate and hits--is so brief and lacking in suspense it seems an afterthought. There's hardly ever a sense of danger or ambiguity in this Disneyfied view of the Negro Leagues; even the love story seems to arise more out of a need for a few love songs than out of any attraction between Country Joe and Lonnette.
In what is something of a coup production for the young and geographically remote DreamStreet, director Gordon E. McClure effectively cloaks a good deal of the script's gaps and the shopworn quality of the score. In a uniformly fine cast whose talents would be remarkable on any of Chicago's best-known stages, Byron G. Willis is particularly strong as Bingo, with both the physical and vocal presence to convey the man's power and charisma. As Leon Price, the pitcher with one year of baseball left in him, Stanley White demonstrates a charm, nobility, and intelligence few ballplayers of the last 50 years have had. J. Michael Jones as Boggs is effectively bellicose, and as a female team owner, E. Faye Butler gives a performance so strong and self-assured it makes up for the character's lack of stage time.
Musical director Charles Thomas Hayes has assembled an incredibly gifted eight-piece orchestra featuring legendary Chicago avant-garde reed player and flutist Edward Wilkerson: as leader of Eight Bold Souls and a member of AACM, he's certainly lent his talents to projects far more challenging than this one. He, the rest of the orchestra, and the cast manage to lift this production to a level of professionalism and inspiration the imitative material doesn't usually even attempt. Close your eyes and you might think you're on Broadway--and maybe that Eisenhower is president too.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Bingo Long and His Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings.