Preview: Point Park's '21' dramatizes the life of Clemente
October 16, 2014 12:00 AM
Jeff Swensen for Point Park Univ
Keaton Jadwin plays manager Danny Murtaugh, and Jeffrey Gorti portrays Roberto Clemente in the Point Park Conservatory production "21."
By Sharon Eberson / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Just last week, director Richard Sabellico and writer Alki Steriopoulos switched the positions of three songs in the new musical "21" and rewrote the ending.
Wouldn't it be nice if we could change some endings in real life?
As the title should suggest to Pirates fans, the subject of "21" is right fielder Roberto Clemente, who conjures many things for those who saw the baseball great play -- his rifle arm, his whip-sure bat, his trademark tics as he stepped up to the plate.
When: Friday through Oct. 26 (preview night Thursday). 8 p.m. Thursday-Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday.
Tickets: $18-$20; 412-392-8000 or www.pittsburghplayhouse.com.
"Clemente could field the ball in New York and throw out a guy in Pennsylvania," broadcaster Vin Scully said of the Hall of Famer, whose life was cut short in a plane crash at age 38. He was bringing aid to earthquake victims, sealing his status as a hero in Pittsburgh, his native Puerto Rico and beyond.
The baseball great is recalled from his signing with the Dodgers' Montreal farm team at age 18 to his final days in the world-premiere musical "21," the season opener for Point Park University's Conservatory Theatre Company.
The story by North Side native, musician and composer Steriopoulos, which has undergone many changes while in development, offers glimpses of the people instrumental in shaping Clemente's life, including his mother, Dona Luisa; his wife, Vera; and his doting sister, Anairis.
"It was more of an opera when I first read it, and there's much more text now. The score is more like 'In the Heights' -- there are two traditional Broadway songs, and the rest is pop-rockish," said Mr. Sabellico, a veteran actor and director who has helmed projects at Carnegie Mellon University and Pittsburgh CLO, including the Jeff Goldblum "Music Man" that was a big part of the actor's "Pittsburgh" film. His Broadway acting roles include Rooster in "Annie" and Pastey in "Gypsy."
Mr. Steriopoulos was a musician for "Those Were the Days" on Broadway, served as associate conductor for "A Chorus Line" and conducted the U.S. tour of "Five Guys Named Moe" among other musical endeavours. He met Mr. Sabellico in the 1980s and called the director while he was developing the musical.
Baseball and Clemente lore were not particularly in the director's wheelhouse.
"I was aware of his popularity here. I was an adult when he died, so I knew who he was, that he was a powerhouse baseball player," Mr. Sabellico said. "Alki of course worshipped him."
The play is biography with theatricality -- It aims to tell the truth, said the director, who played Juan Peron in a tour of "Evita" and could see parallels in the musical biographies.
"It's about his individual journey," Mr. Sabellico said. "He was abused and taken advantage of; he was manipulated, especially by the Dodgers. It wasn't until the Pirates found him he was able to become the player we know him as."
We won't see a lot of baseball on stage; one scene is planned for slow motion, behind a scrim, but that was still a maybe as tech rehearsals were underway last week.
Recently, the writer pointed out that Clemente was running to third on a fly ball that was caught. The scene and lyrics were changed to make the play a home run.
The musical found its way to Point Park after Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company had "21" on its radar for last season, but the collaboration didn't work. Mr. Sabellico came onboard after that experience and with the intent of introducing the musical with an all-student cast.
The director said there is not a big pool of ethnic-specific actors to choose from, but casting performers who people might recognize as Clemente and other Pirates was not a priority.
Jeff Gorti, whose ancestors are from India and Ireland, will play Clemente. His wife, Vera, will be played by Beatriz Naranjo, who was born and grew up in Caracas, Venezuela. The performers who will play Spanish-speaking roles have been asked to speak in a slight accent, but to be understood is the mandate.
"I told Alki early on, this isn't about moving this production to Broadway. It's about getting the show on its feet and giving the best experience to the kids," Mr. Sabellico said.
Although the musical is about Clemente from first pitch to last, we see only once the real man who wore 21 for the Pirates.
In that final scene, a photograph will be on display.
"It's the one where he's catching a ball -- I'm sure you know it," Mr. Sabellico said. "It's the one where there are clouds on either side of him, like angels' wings."
Sharon Eberson: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1960. Twitter: SEberson_pg.
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