By John Quinn
I had the pleasure of reviewing the premiere of Detroit Free Press columnist Mitch Albom’s homage to broadcasting legend Ernie Harwell in 2011. I wrote then that “Perhaps we can look forward to its return in future springs.” And so it did.
But if “Ernie” is opening closer to the All-Star Game than to Opening Day this year, it played successfully in Lakeland, Florida during the Tigers’ spring training. But Harwell was not only “The Voice of the Tigers” for 42 years; he was the “Voice of Summer” for Detroit sports fans. I associate his warm voice with the blazing heat of a Michigan summer than with the dreary, wet Michigan spring. Any time is the right time to remember a quiet, gentle, decent man.
The date of Opening Night has changed, but little else. “Ernie” plays at The City Theatre, inside Hockeytown Cafe, directly across Woodward from Comerica Park. It still can boast about Kirk Domer’s disheveled scenic design that recreates a field access tunnel at the stadium. The startling lighting and sound designs by Dan Walker and Steve Shannon, respectively, effectively enliven the performance. Best of all, Alison Dobbins’ remarkable video designs recreate the highlights from over 80 years of “America’s Pastime” through archival photos and film footage provided by Major League Baseball.
Timothy “TJ” Corbett returns as the “Boy,” a teen of indeterminate age but boundless enthusiasm. The fact that Corbett was an adult when he assumed the role and is now older still doesn’t show. His use of vocal inflection and body language might make his next role Peter Pan.
What has changed is the actor in the title role. Peter Carey, who has served as understudy for the past three seasons, finally gets to play the part he learned in 2011. Similar to his stage partner, but different in effect, Carey successfully portrays a character 35 years his senior. He imbues the role with subtle hints of an aging, ill body. But, because of his many years in radio, Harwell is remembered for his warm, rich bass-baritone and Georgia twang. Carey has it down pat. It is interesting to note how he delineates Ernie, the guy in the access tunnel, from Ernie, Voice of the Tigers. The shift of inflection – the powerful, diaphragm-supported delivery – let’s one know when the character is “on air.”
The story is deceptively simple. It is the evening of Sept. 16, 2009. A reluctant Ernie Harwell has come to the stadium for one last thank you from an adoring city – Ernie is dying of cancer. To add insult to injury, it’s pouring, and the storm has blacked out first the scoreboard and then the stadium lights. Harwell’s aphorism, “Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains” is a recurring observation. His nervous pacing is interrupted by a boy, clothed in knickers and po’boy hat, who is elusive about his identity, but is more than just a routine fan. The persistent pest coaxes Harwell to “make one last broadcast” and call his life story. “Ernie” is a play in nine innings.
Mitch Albom wrote in a column around the time of “Ernie’s” premiere, “How do you make a play about an angel?” The answer: “It ain’t easy.” Having re-read my earlier review, I’m going to plagiarize myself – not because I’m lazy (though I am), but because I can’t really improve on what I wrote. “The play defies conventional dramatic norms of conflict and resolution, focusing instead on a life well lived and the sport that influenced it. ‘Ernie’ is filled with special moments; funny, wistful, thoughtful, loving. At times it approaches poetry, most notably in retelling ‘The Shot Heard ’round the World,’ the game-ending hit in the 1951 post season play that won the New York Giants the National League pennant. A cadence develops between the characters as formal as the responses between priest and acolyte. We don’t doubt for a minute that for the true believer, there’s a little religion in the game.”
One more personage remains the same for 2014 – director Tony Caselli. To him goes the credit for “Ernie” remaining a consistent fan favorite. It’s appealing entertainment for theater fans, and yet still pleases sports fans. In short, as we say in show biz, this show’s got legs, and I predict that “Ernie” won’t be retiring at the end of the season.
2301 Woodward Ave., Detroit
8 p.m. Wednesday, July 23,
5:30 p.m. Thursday, July 31, Aug. 14
8 p.m. Thursday, July 17, 24, Aug. 7
8 p.m. Friday, July 11, 18, 25, Aug. 1, 8, 15
3 p.m. Saturday, July 12, 19, Aug. 2, 9, 16
8 p.m. Saturday, July 12, 19, Aug. 2, 9, 16
3 p.m. Sunday, July 13, 27, Aug. 10
5 p.m. Sunday, July 20, Aug. 3, 17
1 hour, 37minutes; no intermission