- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 17, 2008

Between steroids and scandal, the great American pastime has taken a beating. In the springtime of a new season, baseball regains some of its luster with the world premiere of “Looking for Roberto Clemente” at Imagination Stage.

This children’s musical, featuring a buoyant rock score by Karen Zacarias and Deborah Wicks La Puma that hearkens back to the days of the Jackson Five and ‘70s supergroups, has tuneful lessons in store for adults as well because it delves into the nature of what it means to be a hero.

Set in 1972 Pittsburgh, “Roberto Clemente” centers on the impact the slugger’s 3,000th hit has on the life of 11-year-old fan Sam Kowalski (Derek Manson) and his friends, tomboy Charlie (Erika Rose) and budding statistician Peter (Zack Colonna).

Sam is a slugger in his mind but nervous on the field, so when a baseball crashes through his window while he’s listening to the landmark game on his transistor radio (Tab, Tang and the phrase “far out!” are also among the show’s yesteryear charms) he believes it’s Clemente’s ball and imbues it with magical powers.

Sam also starts communicating with Clemente (Don Kenneth Mason, bearing an almost eerie physical resemblance to the late baseball player) through the same radio, and the pensive Pirate engages the boy in mystical conversations about the pitfalls of idol worship and how true heroics go far beyond athletic feats.

At first, Sam is half-listening because the baseball appears to have given him a killer pitching arm. He attracts the notice of the neighborhood’s sandlot Fonz, Joe (Matthew Schleigh), who recruits him for the champion Little League team, the Barracudas. Faced with choosing baseball or his buds, Sam learns that being No. 1 does not necessarily make you a winner.

Baseball lovers will find this show irresistible — and the scene announcing the disappearance of Clemente’s plane while flying to Nicaragua to aid earthquake victims — is as major a tear-jerker as Lou Gehrig’s speech in “Pride of the Yankees.” But the music and the engaging and effervescent performances from the young cast will captivate even the sports-shy.

Director Kathryn Chase Bryer uses sound effects and imaginative stagecraft to capture the magic of baseball rather than having the actors play the game, making the audience more than just spectators. The musical takes a while to warm up in the first half, which may make youngsters restless, but it delivers an emotional wallop in the second.

From the barbershop harmonies of “Pits in Pittsburgh” and the Motown vibe of “Homerun, Grandslam Promise” to the rollicking rock anthem “Winning Is a Ball” and the reflective duet between Sam and Clemente, “Diamond in the Rough,” “Clemente,” the musical, hits it out of the ballpark.

***

WHAT:”Looking for Roberto Clemente,” book and lyrics by Karen Zacarias, music by Deborah Wicks La Puma

WHERE: Imagination Stage, 4908 Auburn Ave., Bethesda

WHEN:12:30, 3:30 and 7 p.m. Saturdays; 12:30 and 3:30 p.m. Sundays. Through June 1.

TICKETS:$10 to $20

PHONE: 301/280-1660

WEB SITE: www.imaginationstage.org

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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