In Delightful 'Clemente,' Ground Rules for Life

By Celia Wren
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, April 17, 2008

Writer Karen Zacarías and composer Deborah Wicks La Puma turn a funny, crackerjack tale about baseball-obsessed kids into a terrific new children's musical, "Looking for Roberto Clemente," now premiering at Imagination Stage.

Vivaciously directed by Kathryn Chase Bryer, this vivid story set in 1970s Pittsburgh transmits moral wisdom, as children's theater is wont to do -- in this case, it's a tip about generosity and inclusiveness. In her book and lyrics, Zacarías draws her lesson so delicately, and girds it with so much wit and characterization, that the show never feels schoolmarmish -- it's purely exuberant.

At the center of the story is Sam Kowalski (Derek Manson), an excitable 11-year-old who idolizes Clemente, the legendary Puerto Rican-born player for the Pittsburgh Pirates. One day, magically, Sam finds himself able to chat with his hero over a radio, and he also acquires ace pitching abilities, allowing him to join an elite Little League team called the Barracudas.

Unfortunately, becoming a Barracuda means blowing off his best friends, the nerdy Peter (Zack Colonna) and tomboyish Charlie (Erika Rose). Charlie is a dynamite athlete herself, but that cuts no ice with arrogant Barracuda captain Joe (Matthew Schleigh). "Girls can't play," he announces. "Girls are sissies. They cry and stuff." It takes the tragic death of Clemente -- killed in a plane crash in 1972, while ferrying relief supplies to an earthquake-devastated Nicaragua -- for Sam and his peers to get their priorities straightened out.

With its shimmering chord changes regularly ceding to cheerfully thumping pop-tinged-showtune sounds, La Puma's music seems to mirror the thematic tug-of-war between idealism and ambition. A three-person band provides the accompaniment, sitting in a raised alcove in Elizabeth Jenkins McFadden's ESPN-worthy set: two rows of floodlights and a green baseball diamond, as well as a house facade constructed of the kind of wire fencing that might surround a Little League field. The building's windows flash bright now and then with historical photos, such as sepia Pittsburgh streetscapes, hinting at the broader world encroaching on the games of the elementary-school set.

But the gleeful, tempestuous energies of childhood remain strong and infectious. Manson ignites the character of Sam: From the fledgling jock's first scene, when he nearly topples down some steps while ogling a baseball, he exudes effervescent boyishness. Swaggering and running his fingers through his hair, Schleigh is funny and idiosyncratic as the preening Joe; and Colonna, peering out from behind red-framed glasses, is endearingly comic as Peter, who dreams of being an accountant. And JP Illarramendi, an actor who has Down syndrome, portrays Tommy, a child with special needs who would love to play ball if the other kids would only let him.

The high spirits of all these youngsters find apt expression in Krissie Marty's bouncy, elbow-flapping choreography.

Don Kenneth Mason is a sturdy presence as Clemente, the musical's only adult figure. (In a lovely bit of throwaway humor, whenever the famous right fielder says anything modest or high-minded, the set's windows switch to images of orange trees, a nod to the athlete's warm-climate roots and to a metaphor in the show's opening song.)

But adult audience members won't feel stranded: Zacarías has seeded the script with allusions they'll appreciate. For instance, Sam, Peter and Charlie's chatter about their career hopes touches on Pittsburgh's economic vulnerability as the steel industry wanes. And baseball-announcer voice-overs include promo spots for Tab and Tang (remember those fine beverages?). "Looking for Roberto Clemente" is a musical well-stocked with zest and comedy; with these flashes of grown-up intelligence, it -- yes -- covers all its bases.

Looking for Roberto Clemente, book and lyrics by Karen Zacarías, music by Deborah Wicks La Puma. Directed by Kathryn Chase Bryer; musical direction, Dan Villar; lighting design, Harold Burgess; costumes, Yvette M. Ryan; properties, Marie-Noelle Daigneault; sound, Neil McFadden. With Chris Wilson. 90 minutes. Suitable for 4 and older. Through June 1, at Imagination Stage, 4908 Auburn Ave., Bethesda. Call 301-280-1660 or visit

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