Looking for Roberto Clemente, a remounted musical from Imagination Stage, mixes pushed nostalgia and classic sports formulae to bridge generations and make an adorable musical.
The story is a familiar one, classic in a thousand inspirational sports movies from the past 50 years. A downtrodden kid with a deep love for the game and his hometown team (but less than no talent) gets a sign through a magical connection to his in-game hero in the form of an important object in the sport. That object inspires him to achievement that he never thought possible, and, as he reaches the pinnacle of his achievement, he has a crisis surrounding the object. But, happily, he realizes the magic was inside of him all along. Victory is achieved and there’s a special and final connection with the hero that ends the movie satisfactorily.
For Looking for Roberto Clemente, the kid is Sam Kowalski (brightly youthful David Landstrom), the sport is baseball, the team is the Pittsburgh Pirates, the object is a ball, the magical connection is a radio that lets him talk to the professional hero, who is, of course, Roberto Clemente.
The play does get stuck sometimes in the repetitive beats and lack of nuance that can drag down work in this genre. But playwright Karen Zacarias and Imagination stage provide some nice twists on the formula that keep Looking for Roberto Clemente from being too predictable for adults and too plodding for kids.
The music of the play provides an unexpected twist. Looking for Roberto Clemente is definitely a musical, but boiled down. Here we don’t have the full musical structure (i.e., we get the buddy song and the villain’s song argument for his perspective, but not the first act multilayered closer or the hero’s crisis song), but that’s okay because a traditional musical would make this already quite lengthy play into a naptime. Instead, Deborah Wicks La Puma’s poppy but throwback music and Stephen Brotebeck’s deceptively simple dance act as a nice pick-me-up when the plot of the play slows down.
The way the play deals with its interesting melange of social issues provides not just entertainment and heartfelt meaning, but an accessible platform for a variety of discussions with young ones after the show. Usually, if a sports performance or film deals with social issues at all, it will pick one and hammer it until it’s flat. But Looking for Roberto Clemente nods to the complexity of the world by taking on all comers. Lead character Sam’s best friend Charlie (Charlotte, played by the vivacious Eben Logan) isn’t allowed to play on the Little League team Sam gets on because she’s a girl, even though she’s just as talented. Sam’s magical radio talks with Roberto Clemente to help Sam understand the difficulties Clemente had with racism in the Majors.
Most potent is the truthful portrayal of Tommy, a disabled young man whose participation in the game turns out to be the crux of the play. Director Janet Stanford cast two men who have developmental disabilities in the role of Tommy. This casting not only lends authenticity to the role but sends a message to kids who see this show with actions (in addition to words) that inclusion should be a priority for everyone.
Beyond that brilliant move, Stanford’s direction is rock solid in its total commitment to the era. Ivania Stack’s costume design lives and breathes 1972 while Brotebeck’s choreography seems lifted right from Soul Train. Debbie Jacobson’s musical direction work creates an instantly recognizable 70’s soundscape. Chris Baine’s sound design carries much of the weight in making Looking for Roberto Clemente ooze baseball, and it is quintessentially 70’s baseball, with just the right kind of sound of the bat and radio that will take the adults in the audience right back to childhood.
I think that is telling of whom this play is for. While many parents of TYA-aged kids may not have a strong connection with Roberto Clemente, I think grandparents will. A grandparent can tell a young audience member what it was like to watch Clemente’s rise and share their experience of his tragic end. I’d recommend this production to parents and grandparents looking to connect with their young ones through sports, young audiences ready to deal with the complications of social issues in today’s world, and adults looking for a healthy shot of nostalgia for 70’s baseball.
Looking for Roberto Clemente by Karen Zacarias with Music by Deborah Wicks La Puma. Directed by Janet Stanford . Featuring Ian Anthony Coleman, Philip da Costa, David Landstrom, Scott Callahan Lesmes, Eben K Logan, Charlie Martin, Calvin McCullough, and Jaysen Wright . Music Direction: Debbie Jacobson . Scenic Design: Daniel Pinha . Lighting Design: Sarah Tundermann . Sound Design: Chris Baine . Projection Design: Lauren Joy . Costume Design: Ivania Stack . Choreography: Stephen Brotebeck . Stage Management: Jessica Skelton . Produced by Imagination Stage. Reviewed by Alan Katz.