Choreographer Luis Salgado knows how Roberto Clemente felt about baseball. This fact reveals itself about 15 minutes into “DC-7: The Roberto Clemente Story,” the reverent, clunky bio-musical at GALA Hispanic Theatre. In the bilingual production’s first quarter hour, reminiscing characters and a snippet of TV-news voice-over introduce us to the life and death of Clemente, the baseball legend and humanitarian who was killed in a plane crash in 1972. We meet his widow and his tearful older brother, and we travel, via flashback, to his childhood in Puerto Rico.
The storytelling is dutiful, presentational and stiff — and then, suddenly, exuberant Afro-Caribbean music breaks out, and the stage eddies with ensemble members dancing a paean to baseball. Performers glide through warm-ups and game moves, pitching and catching invisible balls, swinging imaginary bats, pumping arms through muscle-loosening rotations, and changing directions with shifts of knee and hip, as if pivoting to watch a projectile fall. The movements allude to specific events on the field, but the physicality is caressing, expansive and joyous. We are, essentially, seeing the national pastime through the eyes of young Clemente, who would go on to become a sports superstar during 18 seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Salgado’s choreography is the most aesthetically satisfying element in “DC-7,” a show that is earnest, educational and celebratory but that lacks elegance in form and flow. Directed by Luis Caballero, who also wrote the book and lyrics — he co-wrote the music with Harold Gutierrez — the musical moves in jolting fashion from short biographical scenes to direct-address speeches by various characters to stylistically varied musical numbers, with the odd documentary-style photographic montage thrown in for good measure. It’s certainly an informative primer on Clemente’s life, and it pays honorable tribute to the ballplayer’s achievements. But it only flourishes theatrically when it is dancing. (Salgado was the Latin assistant choreographer on the Tony Award-winning musical “In the Heights.”)
As you might expect from a show that takes its name partly from an aviation accident — the 38-year-old Clemente was riding in a DC-7 cargo plane, attempting to deliver earthquake aid to Nicaragua, when he died — the tone is primarily elegiac. On a stark stage — key scenic ingredients include a players’ bench and a set of team logos suspended in the background — we meet Clemente’s widow Vera (Keren Lugo), his brother Matino (Josean Ortiz) and his sportscaster friend Ramiro (Ricardo Puente). These three characters take turns recalling the star’s life and career, speaking directly to the audience; when not in direct-address mode, they melt into sequences that conjure up the life of Clemente (Modesto Lacen).
The scenes summarize Clemente’s youth in Puerto Rico; his struggles with the language barrier during his professional career on the U.S. mainland (and, briefly, in Canada); his encounters with racism (as a dark-skinned man, he was privy to American discrimination at its worst); his wooing of Vera; his veneration of Martin Luther King Jr.; and his extensive charity work.
Lacen, who originated the role of Clemente in the show’s premiere last year (it debuted in New York, produced by Manuel A. Moran and the Society of the Educational Arts, at the Puerto Rican Traveling Theater), looks a bit awkward when he’s portraying Clemente as an adolescent. (What adult actor wouldn’t?) But once the character comes of age, the performer exudes an eloquent air of brooding resolution, tempered by flashes of bafflement, frustration and passion.
Lugo’s Vera radiates a winning sweetness (the actress also sings beautifully). And Puente, strutting around in a checked leisure suit, provides valuable comic relief as the eccentric Ramiro. But it’s the ensemble — when dancing — that is the most valuable player here.
Wren is a freelance writer.
Book, lyrics and direction by Luis Caballero; music by Luis Caballero and Harold Gutierrez; musical direction, Didier Prossaird; scenic design, Jose Lopez Aleman; lighting, Joseph R. Walls; costumes, Harry Nadal; sound, Brendon Vierra; projections, Jorge “Fish” Rodriguez. With Jase Parker, Miguel Vasquez; Carlos Saldana, Valeria Cossu, Fernando Contreras, Alexandra Linn, and Xiomara Rodriguez. In English and Spanish, with translation via surtitles. Translated by Jeannete Gonzalez, Richard Marino and Miguel Trelles. About 2 hours and 20 minutes. Through May 26 at GALA Hispanic Theatre, 3333 14th St. NW. Call 800-494-8497 or 202-234-7174, or visit www.galatheatre.org.