Review: New musical honors the life and times of Pirates great Roberto Clemente
October 20, 2014 3:30 PM
Jeffrey Gorti portrays Roberto Clemente in "21,” the new musical by Alki Steriopoulos and directed by Richard Sabellico for the Conservatory Theatre Company of Point Park.
By Bob Hoover / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Take the clubhouse camaraderie from “Damn Yankees,” choreographed by Bob Fosse, the Jerome Robbins dance moves of “West Side Story” and the bitterness of racial prejudice from “In The Heights,” and they add up to “21,” the premiere of Alki Steriopoulos’ uplifting musical about the life of Roberto Clemente. The title refers to Clemente’s uniform number.
Pittsburgh native Steriopoulos crafted the story, music and lyrics for his homage to “The Great One,” a bit of hyperbole by the hyperbolic Pirate broadcaster Bob Prince, but for once, the late, long lamented “Gunner” wasn’t exaggerating.
Where: Conservatory Theatre Company of Point Park University at the Pittsburgh Playhouse, Oakland.
When: Through Oct. 26. Thursday-Friday, 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 8 p.m. Sunday, 2 p.m.
Tickets: $18-$20. Seniors, $9-$10. 412-392-8000 or www.pittsburghplayhouse.com.
Clemente was great as a person and a ballplayer. I was lucky to see him play for more than a decade at Forbes Field and Three Rivers Stadium and I take the word of his numerous biographers for his sterling qualities off the field.
While some of these writers used Clemente as a vehicle to talk about themselves, Mr. Steriopoulos’ production is all about the Puerto Rican native who said he had two strikes against him when he came to play in Pittsburgh in 1955: Black and Hispanic.
He makes these points without clobbering us over the head, using comedy, a mix of music from Broadway and Latin America and direct lyrics to show us Clemente’s struggles and eventual triumph. His hero is as near to perfect as Don Larsen’s 1956 World Series no-hitter, an intelligent striver whose fiery temper was reined in by his loving parents and wife, Vera.
The chance that Mr. Steriopoulos can convince the Vatican to put the right fielder on the short list for sainthood seems unlikely, but “21” is a strong argument for deification.
Richard Sabellico directed an enthusiastic and energetic cast of Point Park University students led by the agile Jeffrey Gorti as Clemente who can sing Mr. Steriopoulos’ tongue-twisting lyrics with ease and charm the women with a bright smile.
Other student standouts are Te’Era Coleman as the spirit of Clemente’s dead sister, Zach Petrovich, using a hilarious Pittsburgh accent as a bigoted sports reporter, and Beatriz Naranjo playing a loving, yet tough spouse who matches Gorti in their love duets.
Mr. Sabellico choreographed some hilarious dance numbers including a clash of the polka and German style steps set in a 1950s Pittsburgh bar and a mashup of Latin steps in a Puerto Rican market.
With colorful costumes by Joan Markert, creative set design by Michael Thomas Essad and live music directed by Douglas Levine, “21” is impressive and entertaining.
Clemente was a complicated, emotional man whose independence at first alienated the white Pirate owners, coaches, players, reporters and fans. He won them all over with his performances at the ballpark and in life.
Mr. Steriopoulos focuses on his hero’s triumph over bigotry and skepticism and his pride in his native land and people. It’s not an easy story to tell, so there are simple explanations and stereotypes in his script.
And there are the errors. I’ll just mention the role of Danny Murtaugh, who was not the Pirate manager in 1956, did not use an Irish brogue and probably didn’t get drunk in public. He was the skipper for both the 1960 and ’71 World Series teams and certainly appreciated Clemente’s role in both.
Despite the miscues (please get rid of that ridiculous Forbes Field scoreboard), “21” charges down the first-base line and gallops around the bases with much of the same grace, spirit and determination of its hero.
His arrival at home, as we know, was not a game-winner, but an avoidable tragedy. “21” is so respectful of Clemente that his death is not turned into a soap opera but a true moment of honor.
Bob Hoover is the retired Post-Gazette book editor.
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