Wilkes-Barre made it to Broadway once, when Vivien Leigh teamed with Byron Mitchell to sing about the city in the 1963 production of “Tovarich.”
“Take me back where I belong! Wilkes-Barre, PA!”
Leigh won a Tony, and Ed Sullivan had the duo recreate the scene on his iconic variety show, thus immortalizing the link between the Luzerne County seat and the American theater mecca.
I have yet to find out why the lyricist chose Wilkes-Barre as the home of Mitchell’s young American in Paris falling for Leigh’s Russian noble hiding as a maid to elude Bolshevik revolutionaries (imagine pitching that idea to potential investors). But it might not be as surprising as one would expect.
Old-timers — including my wife’s late great uncle, I’m told — have talked of a time Wilkes-Barre was a pivotal stop for many plays heading to Broadway.
One theory says producers pined for success on the Susquehanna because our hardworking, low-paid miners were tough critics. Please a Luzerne County crowd, the reasoning went, and you could expect to be boffo on Broadway.
There have been recent attempts to bring back the days when Wyoming Valley stage buffs could get a glimpse of a hit before it got to Broadway, not after, as touring troupes appear at regional venues.
Wilkes-Barre native James Burke made a Herculean effort to bring the story of the Molly Maguires to life as a Broadway musical, showcasing the tunes at the F.M. Kirby Center in 2007. The push to New York stalled; here’s hoping it doesn’t die. The saga of exploited miners fighting back, and the spy who infiltrates their ranks, deserves the national stage.
Currently, area residents have another crack at seeing a Broadway wannabe: “National Pastime,” at Little Theatre in Wilkes-Barre. My wife and I attended Sunday’s matinee.
I’ve praised the quality of some local community theater in the past, but the cast for “Pastime” seemed to be striving for a new level, possibly because there’s not only a chance they are performing a future Broadway show, they might be auditioning to be part of it. The people behind the play have said that, if they do get to New York, they would be willing to consider casting those who helped bring the play to life.
The heart of the script is a struggling Iowa radio station in the Great Depression hitting it big by airing fictional baseball games of a local team touring in Europe. The team is thus both unbeatable and beyond scrutiny to local listeners.
The humor comes first from the utter lack of baseball knowledge by the announcers (when you don’t know “P” is for “pitcher,” you talk about “pitching” without the “itch”), and morphs into gut-laugh farce in a second-act attempt to preserve the fiction against inquiries by Life magazine.
The music and songs do a decent job of striking the balance between following the current Broadway success formula and being new enough to stand out. The cast is loaded with strong voices hitting solid harmonies (listen closely to the trio singing all the radio commercial jingles). And while the stage space restricts a lot of the dancing, they work well with what they’ve got, including a desk that becomes a pedestal for a sort of Statue of Liberty (a particularly funny scene).
If you’ve got the time, consider taking in a showing of “National Pastime.” If not for the nostalgia, the singing, the humor or the novelty of a new play, then for this: There’s a chance you’ll be able to look back when they are announcing Tony nominees and say, “Hey, I saw that before it even got to Broadway, in Wilkes-Barre, PA!”