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History seldom gives us figures of pure good or evil, but if it ever does, it’s either through sports or politics. Such are the circumstances surrounding the death of Roberto Clemente in 1972. The baseball legend died in a plane crash delivering medical supplies to Nicaragua, which had suffered a catastrophic earthquake earlier that year. When international aid flowed into the country, its ruler Anastasio Somoza, an almost comically corrupt caricature of a banana republic dictator, decided to keep it for himself. Clemente flew to Nicaragua on New Year’s Eve in a rusty DC-7 to make sure his shipment actually reached its intended recipients. Dying just two months after achieving his 3,000th career hit cemented his status as a saint in his native Puerto Rico and one of the last unsullied heroes of the game.
Unfortunately saints don’t make for great drama. There’s Clemente being a terrific son. There’s him being a terrific athlete. Then a terrific husband, then a terrific humanitarian, and so on. Gala Hispanic Theatre’s biomusical is so painfully earnest in depicting every facet of his terrificness that to criticize DC-7 is like giving a thumbs down to a children’s theater production at a Sunday school for the blind. But the show just isn’t that good.
The corniness in the first act, with young Roberto scampering around sandlots with a guava branch for a bat, doting on his gruff but loving father and protective mother (both played charmingly—-if predictably—-by Miguel Vásquez and Xiomara Rodriguez) is almost amusing in an Everybody Loves Raymond sense. You can forgive the musical numbers devoted to Roberto’s first suitcase and fish-out-of-water jokes (“the rain in Canada is white and looks like cotton!”). But the veneration reaches unbearable heights in the second act, culminating in Clemente watching news of Martin Luther King’s assassination in his underwear before collapsing in his brother’s arms, Christ-like, in a pietà of grief. As we learn, Clemente was a champion of racial equality who, as a black Puerto Rican in 1960s Pittsburgh, stood up to the ugliest forms of discrimination, though in this story he only does so as a famous ballplayer by pulling the do-you-know-who-I-am card.
Modesto Lacén, returning from an earlier run in New York to play Clemente, has a couple things going for him: an uncanny resemblance and spot-on vocal impression, down to the clipped consonants of Caribbean Spanish (después is de’pue’) and Clemente’s own nasal intonation. He unfortunately doesn’t have the pitch to stay on key all the time. Others in the cast are better singers, notably Keren Lugo as Clemente’s wife, Vera. Ricardo Puente provides comic relief as Clemente’s fabulous, tacky suit- and platform shoe-wearing Cuban guardian angel, and a live ensemble provides the music to Director Luis Caballero’s salsa score. DC-7’s family friendliness and niche appeal guarantees a certain audience—-mostly baseball fans—-that will love it. Others will be rolling their eyes before tapping their toes.
The musical runs to May 26 at Gala Hispanic Theatre. Tickets $20-$42.
Photo by Lonnie Tague