If there is any doubt about the cultural milieu of the charming new musical “In the Schoolyard” being presented this month at Manhattan’s Theater for the New City, the opening lyrics make things crystal clear: “Run, block, make a pass. Come on, Eddie, move your ass!”
Yeah, we’re deep in the heart of Brooklyn, guys. Both the storyline and the genesis of this musical are firmly set in the land of Spaldeens and eggcreams. Here’s the background: in 1998, writer Paulanne Simmons wrote a story for The Brooklyn Paper about a group of grown-up Brooklyn Heights street urchins who return every year to the ‘hood to play basketball and reminisce over a few beers. The story tugged on all those Brooklyn heartstrings: friendship, sports and nostalgia for the good ol’ days.
“I grew up in Brooklyn,” Simmons said recently. “I felt like I knew these guys.” Living in the Heights with her family, but having grown in East New York, Simmons was sure there was drama in the story and in 2001 her play, “Basketball Lessons,” was brought to the stage. Now, with her collaborator, composer Margaret Hetherman, the story that became a play becomes a feisty and warm-hearted musical.
“It happened years ago and yet,” goes one of the songs, “these are the things you don’t forget.” Certainly the fictional characters Simmons has created haven’t forgotten. They are all drawn back to Brooklyn like the swallows to Capistrano, but this year will prove to be a very special reunion of the gang.
Larry (the soulful and sardonic Jimmy Moon), also know as “Killer Dog,” was the golden boy of the nabe and is now a workaholic venture capitalist in California. “Jumping” Jerry (James Martinelli, also the show’s choreographer whose loose joints and full heart reminded me of the Tin Man of Oz), is a family man with small law practice on Long Island. Eddie (the affable Arthur Brown), a high school principal, acts as reunion convener and the show’s chorus. Manny (the solid Richard Bryson), made a mint out of his Tex-Mex restaurant chain. And lastly, Dave (the energetic Mickey Corporon) helped ensure all the guys got through school in the old days, but a succession of failed get-rich-quick schemes have left him broke, with a failing marriage and more-than-a-little desperate.
“But most of us turned out OK,” Larry mused. “I think it’s because we were so close.”
The guys represent the full diversity of Kings County’s Latino, Jewish and Irish sons of immigrants, and are lauded in the song “Protestants, Atheists and Jews.” Most of the show’s tunes are short and slower-tempoed, although Manny (“Best Latin Lover, Dartmouth ‘71”) and his mother — local grocery owner — Mrs. Rivera (“Rice and Beans”), played by Jackie Savage, both add zest with their numbers.
The wives of the fellows (Theresa Marinelli, Barbara Czerner, Jody Bell and Heather Meagher), perhaps predictably, get somewhat short shrift. While the men’s characters, which the show is ultimately most concerned with, are all crispy delineated and well beyond stereotype, the wives all grumble about the reunions and make fun of their husbands for being a little past their prime, with spare tires and balding pates. In a group number, “Our Guys,” however, their love for their tubby hubbies shines through.
The show takes a serious turn in the second act, moving the script beyond just a re-examination of the past with rose-colored glasses. A personal crisis for one of the characters causes all the friends to reflect on what’s truly important to them and how precious the time spent with dear friends and family is.
Although the play’s rudimentary scenic elements — backlit lighting, cardboard sets — convey a community theater-style production, with a few botched sound cues and a flubbed line here and there, these foibles are made up for by the spirit of theater about community that is in harmony with the play’s message. In fact, members of Simmons’s family pitched in with various tasks for the presentation and the Heights Players offered support, too.
The homespun truths captured by “In the Schoolyard,” and the message about your old friends being the truest, was summed up in a comment overhead from an audience member at intermission: “There’s a certain thing in Brooklyn. Those guys, I might not have seen them in years, but I’ll be going to their funeral, or they’ll be going to mine.”
A somber note, perhaps, for a musical with a slightly bittersweet ending, but a shared past has many consolations, as Larry said, “That’s the great thing about coming back to Brooklyn — nothing changes.”
“In the Schoolyard,” will run at Theater for the New City (155 First Ave., between Ninth and 10th streets in Manhattan) through May 20. Tickets are $15. For information, visit www.theaterforthenew....