Bronx Bombers is the latest from the producers of Broadway’s Lombardi. The story of the New York Yankees, sports’ greatest dynasty, is a massive one. From Ruth to Jeter and everywhere in between, telling the history of the once-Highlanders-now-Yankees is no simple task. The smartest way to distill the franchise’s 100+ year history is to do exactly what Eric Simonson did and build a narrative around the questions of what it is that makes being a New York Yankee so special, what it is to work towards a common goal and what it means to be a champion.
I must admit my bias going into this review, I’m a Yankee fan. I grew up one, because of my dad, who’s had season tickets since 1978. I always appreciated baseball, growing up, the subtle nuance of on-field performance, the strategy, the personalities. Don Mattingly hit a home run for me when I saw the Yankees play for the first time. I got to meet Mariano Rivera at Spring Training one year. Most importantly, in 2009, I got to go to game six in the new Yankee Stadium and watch the Yankees defeat the Philadelphia Phillies for the World Series. I was with my dad and that meant the world to me. To see them win was great, but to see it happen with my dad was everything.
Bronx Bombers is a piece of theater so beautifully-acted, top to bottom, it’s almost mind-boggling. Peter Scolari (Girls, Newhart), stars as Yogi Berra, owner of a dozen World Series Championship rings (ten as a player, two as a coach, specifically with the Yankees) and the lens through which we interpret Yankee greatness. Opening in 1977, during the “Bronx Zoo” era of the Yankees, a stressed Berra calls a secret meeting between manager Billy Martin (Keith Nobbs), superstar right fielder Reggie Jackson (Francois Battiste) and team captain Thurman Munson (Bill Dawes). The men go back and forth over what it means to be a Yankee, what it is to play on a team and what it means to put aside their differences in order to accomplish their goal: to win a World Series.
The “Bronx Zoo” era of the Yankees is well-tread territory, most famously in Jeremiah Chechik’s brilliant ESPN mini-series, The Bronx is Burning. However; the entirety of the drama that went on behind the scenes of what is arguably one of baseball’s greatest lineups is perfectly boiled down to a strong opener in Bronx Bombers. Scolari, as Berra, is a genuine and sweet character, serving as the audience’s hopes. Scolari is easily the best Berra that’s ever been performed. Joe Grifasi took a swing (baseball pun!) at the role in The Bronx is Burning while Paul Borghese played him in Billy Crystal’s fantastic 61*. Scolari not only looks exactly like Berra (in glasses and in pinstripes), but also nails the way he speaks.
Scolari isn’t the only chameleon in the show. A majority of the cast pulls double duty as multiple players, excelling at some and doing fine at others. No one is bad, as odd as that sounds. There aren’t any weak links in this lineup (baseball pun!). The entire cast is a murderer’s row of talent and are genuinely a treat to watch perform.
I had subscribed to the notion that Thomas Jane was the best Mickey Mantle I’ve ever seen. No longer, after seeing Dawes go from playing Munson in the first scene to Mantle later on. Physically, he’s built exactly like Mantle, he’s got the good looks, the drawl, everything. It’s a sight to behold. I can only imagine what it’s like for folks who’ve either met or knew Mantle when he was alive to see Dawes perform, it’s gotta’ be moving. It certainly was for me, and I’ve only known Mantle as a fan and baseball geek.
There are two outstanding performers in Bronx Bombers who affected me. John Wernke, playing the tragic, yet immortal Lou Gehrig, made me tear up. The subtlety of his performance as perhaps the most famous of Yankee captains is both heartbreaking and brilliant. Gehrig, portrayed as an innocent, and worshipped by those around him (in this case, other Yankee legends during the play’s showstopping sequence) as a god, shines through as the true voice of reason and the voice who defines just what it is that makes being a Yankee so important. A lesser-actor would fade into the background surrounded by such an awesome cast, but Wernke is electrifying.
The other performance is by Battiste, pulling double duty as Jackson and Elston Howard, the first black Yankee. Howard isn’t the most well-known Yankee in the annals of Bombers-lore, but he is easily one of the most important. Howard, the eloquent Yankee who faced adversity with stoicism and bravery, gets the spotlight he deserves, as the play highlights his tremendous class. The idea is that without Howard's dignity and level head, a player like Jackson could never have existed or, at the very least, wouldn't have been as widely accepted as part of Yankees lore. This aspect of the play is a stunning tribute to a Yankee that isn't on the forefront of fans' minds, but perhaps should be. Without Howard’s stoicism, Jackson wouldn’t have had swagger. Battiste takes on two of the more difficult characters in the piece, and delivers exceptional performances as both.
I always feel bad reviewing something and not singling out every single performer in the cast, when the cast is this fantastic. Chris Henry Coffey is great as Joe DiMaggio (my all-time favorite Yankee), though far better-looking than Joltin’ Joe could ever be, Tracy Shayne is charming and perfect as Carmen Berra, C. J. Wilson washes the bad taste of John Goodman’s Babe Ruth out of your mouth, portraying the larger-than-life baseball god expertly.
One thing that was strange was that, in the wake of Derek Jeter’s announced retirement, I was seeing a Broadway show about the legendary Yankees. I’m not one to flip through the Playbill before a show, so I had no idea that Derek Jeter was actually a character in Bronx Bombers going in. I’m glad I didn’t know, because it was almost surreal seeing the current Yankee captain join the rest of the legends at the Berra table for dinner. Christopher Jackson essays a character that we’ll probably see more of as the years pass, with Jeter joining Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Howard, Berra, Mantle, Martin, Jackson and Munson in the annals of Yankee lore.
Bronx Bombers is an emotional and incredibly well-acted Broadway experience. Do I dare close this review with another cheesy baseball pun? Do I do the obvious thing and say that Bronx Bombers is a home run?
Nah. Bronx Bombers is better than that. It’s a perfect game. 27 up, 27 down. Baseball immortality. On stage.