Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Strong Performances, Spry Songs Power Not-Quite-Legendary Portrait of 'Clemente' -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Clemente: The Legend of 21
written & directed by Luis Caballero
with music by Harold Gutierrez
presented by Night Blue Performing Arts Company
at Stage 773, Chicago
Thru September 14

A few weeks ago--on August 18 to be exact--I noticed on Wikipedia that it would have been the 80th birthday of the late, great Roberto Clemente.

Although I was too young to ever see the legendary Pittsburgh Pirates rightfielder play, I asked on Facebook if any others had, and was pleased to note a couple nice remembrances.

For like Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Sandy Koufax, Frank Robinson, Ernie Banks and others, Clemente was one of those hallowed names whose careers preceded my baseball fandom, but whose brilliance continued to engender reverence throughout my youth--and ever since.

But Roberto Clemente was particularly venerated, given the tragic plane crash that took his life on the last day of 1972, while on a humanitarian mission to Nicaragua. His heroic exploits, off-the-field and on--known to me largely through Cubs rain-delay highlights of the 1971 World Series, in which Clemente batted .414 to lead the Pirates to the title--were divinely punctuated for the history books by his career having ended with exactly 3,000 hits.

In having noted his birthday and watching some clips on YouTube, I reflected that it would probably be valuable to watch a documentary of Clemente--though I don't know of a particular one--or even to delve into the David Maraniss biography of him that has long collected dust on my bookshelf.

Though not usurping the benefit of the above, just a few days later I heard--via my baseball-loving friend Dave--of the Chicago premiere of Clemente: The Legend of 21, a stage work recommended by Sun-Times theater critic Hedy Weiss.

All the more intrigued in learning that Clemente is a musical--or, whatever the delineation, a play with music, as the singing is live but not always narrative and the music is pre-recorded--I got a discounted ticket via HotTix and attended on Sunday afternoon.

I was impressed by the size of the cast and my inference that some in it likely traveled from Clemente's homeland of Puerto Rico just for this production, which is being presented by the Night Blue Performing Arts Company at the Stage 773 theater complex on Belmont, just west of Racine.

Under the direction of author Luis Caballero, the staging employs good use of video to accompany Clemente's biography--though not enough baseball footage, IMO--and the good handful of songs by Harold Gutierrez are largely enjoyable, the best part of the show.

But there aren't enough songs to drive the story, only accompany it, and though I had no problem with the choice of the tunes being sung in Clemente's native Spanish--with English supertitles, also used for a great deal of Spanish dialogue--my lack of fluency didn't aid my ability to follow the script, which seemed somewhat cursory and disjointed.

As the adult Clemente, Modesto Lacén is really good, as is Jonathan Amaro Ramos as teenage Roberto, and Lorraine Velez is quite pleasing and well-sung as the slugger's wife Vera.

Clemente: The Legend of 21 is a work I wanted to like a lot more than I did, and even with its flaws should be worthwhile, valuable and appealing for many, so I don't wish to harp on its shortcomings.

But I was rather confused by a seemingly central character named Ramiro Martinez, who with a huge mustache and quasi-buffoonish persona reminded me all-too-much of Andy Kaufman's Tony Clifton alter ego. Not only was I unsure of his connection to Clemente, but tt was also hard at times just to understand what he was saying; I wished for supertitles even though he was speaking in English.

In itself, this wasn't a debilitating detraction, and nothing about Clemente is unwatchably bad, just not theatrically superlative. Though again, in dotting a narrative that stretches too far without delving too deep, and feels like a sequence of episodes rather than cohesively or acutely explanatory, the Latin-infused songs are truly pleasurable.

So even in being happy to consider Clemente for whatever illumination it added to a hero I should know more about, I can't say I learned all that much about the man and even less about the ballplayer.

I don't mean any disrespect to the admirable efforts of the cast, crew and creators, but given the baseball milieu I can't help but recall the exhortations of "Nice cut!" I would hear in Little League when I swung and missed.

Sure, it would have been preferable if I actually hit the ball, but to miss with a fair amount of aplomb, well, I guess it counts for something.

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