Harry Carey would approve— Blue Room knocks Bleacher Bums out of the park
Just in time for spring and the beginning of baseball season, the Blue Room Theatre is staging the classic “nine-inning comedy,” Bleacher Bums, Joe Mantegna’s valentine to the colorful fans who people the right-field bleachers of Chicago’s Wrigley Field. The theater above Collier Hardware in downtown Chico has been transformed by eerily realistic cracks of the bat, a booming announcer’s voice, vendors selling hot dogs, snacks and beer and a well-cast team of actors who seem to be channeling Cubs fans in the heat of the Sammy Sosa home run frenzy of the late-'90s.
Even those who know nothing about baseball (including this writer) have heard tales of the history of the Chicago Cubs and their years playing at Wrigley, the last Federal League ballpark still standing. Despite not having won the World Series in nearly 100 years (since 1908), nor having even made it to the fall classic in 60 years, the team’s fan base is an adamantly loyal crew, and the appeal of Bleacher Bums as a theatrical experience is due to the fact that it literally transports you into the sheer fun of the “Animal House meets Field of Dreams” atmosphere of the Wrigley Field bleachers.
In the late 1970s, Joe Mantegna—before he was a big movie star—was an actor working with The Organic Theatre Company in Chicago, where he developed the Bleacher Bums script in a workshop with other company members, bringing to life the singular experience of a day spent in the bleachers watching a Cubs game.
The play is an interactive experience in which the audience becomes part of the crowd in the bleachers, watching a smattering of characters who are watching a ball game between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Chicago Cubs in the summer of 1998. The staging of the Blue Room production has the audience facing the bleachers; in an interesting mirror-image effect—audience watches audience—and the game itself takes place in the imagination of the fans, with the assistance of fantastic sound effects, announcements and music by Joe Hilsee and Allison Rich. Director Paul Stout has brought some fine players to bat in this funny, energetic show.
The characters in the stands include Melody King (Michelle Smith), a blond hottie in a bikini out to get some sun; Greg, a blind man with an eerie ability to “see” the events around him (fantastically played by Jeff Dickenson); Zig (Rich W. Parmeter), the consummate Cubs fan, willing to bet on his beloved team despite all odds, and his wife, Rose (a hilarious Lorna Bridges), an encyclopedia of baseball trivia and a compulsive husband-corrector; Decker, the peacekeeper (Don Eggert); Richie (James Wilkersen), the eager young kid trying to hang with the big men; Marvin, the sleazy low-rider from the Southside out to bet on the “dirty red birds” and hustle the Cub-lovers (DNA, playing a disgustingly perfect greaseball); and finally, nearly stealing the show with his over-the-top cheerleading, Benjamin Allen as the fan with the heckles that cut to the quick: “Hey, Langford! You couldn’t catch herpes from a Saigon whore!”
Bets are made, jokes are told, pick-ups are attempted, and throughout it all the game unfolds, unseen, in perfect synchrony, as the actors watch the game that, once again, just falls short of a Cubs victory.
Especially impressive is how real it all feels; the excitement of the game is contagious, and the roar of the crowd and shouts of the players in the background make this show unlike any other. It’s the perfect show for that sports fan in the family who would never dream of going to the theater.
There is no intermission, but refreshments are vended after each inning, and there is a seventh-inning stretch with some lively sing-along fun for the audience ("Take me out to the ball game…").
Also, the show is made more personal by announcements about the rapidly approaching beginning of the Chico Outlaws season (opening Friday, May 27, at Nettleton Stadium) and the chance to win Outlaws stuff. Catch it before it’s outta the park, though; Bleacher Bums closes Sunday, May 22.