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A Minor League Musical, Primed for the Majors

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DC-7: The Roberto Clemente Story, a new musical at the illustrious Puerto Rican Traveling Theater, teases at a wonderful idea – that Roberto Clemente, the legendary Puerto Rican member of the Pittsburgh Pirates who died in a plane crash heading back home after a humanitarian mission to Nicaragua, sacrificed himself in order to break down barriers; Clemente, the play suggests, served himself up as a sacrificial lamb, and that the plight of Puerto Ricans like him at home and on the mainland was more important to him than his own life. Surely, Roberto Clemente’s record of service and philanthropy supports this idea – and have done as much if not more to secure his place in the hearts and minds of Puerto Ricans (he’s my father’s idol) – and it’s in those moments when the play’s mind and its heart aren’t weighed down by historical detail that it’s at its best.

Overall, the play is a great experience – and for the price of the tickets, it’s well worth checking out – but even the Tony winning In the Heights was worked and reworked on stage for years before finally hitting its stride. Between the excellent performances – including the award winning lead – and the heart of the story, DC-7 is poised to be something special.

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Lacen, as Clemente

The second act opens with Clemente, played so well by Modesto Lacen that it’s hard to tell where the actor begins and the baseball player (shown in archival footage) begins, in tearful prayer. The ensemble joins him in a dance, and a running play-by-play narrates his fight against the devil, setting Clemente up as a messiah. It’s a high point, because so often biographical works try so hard to tell the entire story of a person’s life in just two hours that they wind up lacking that most important element of art: a point of view.

DC-7’s writer/director Luis Caballero understands this, and it bears itself out in the writing.  The play is narrated by Clemente’s older brother Matino (Josean Ortiz), who glows with pride and admiration; by Clemente’s wife Vera (Lorrie Velez, not to be confused with her twin sister Lauren of Dexter fame), whose reflections on Clemente highlight their romance better than the dinner date/dance number shoehorned in (though the rest of her scenes with him are beautiful); and by Cuban sportscaster Roberto Marin, played by a hilariously show stealing Manuel Moran. These moments, that show what Clemente meant to people, both as a man and a symbol, range from funny to tear-jerking but are always touching and deep.

For me, the show was a mixed bag. I’m not sure what the play would lose anything if the music were removed – that’s not to say the music is bad, just that I’m not sure what it’s doing to help tell the story. The performances, on the other hand were uniformly great (among the ensemble, Johanna Rodriguez’s scene as Dorothy Carrington is a particular standout). Technically, the sound was touch and go, and – though most of the audience didn’t need them – whoever was running the supertitles for this very much bilingual performance was asleep at the wheel. The Puerto Rican Traveling theater is a wonderful facility – I imagine these issues aren’t typical, but when they crop up they can be distracting.

The seats, however, were full, and it’s amazing (as a theater artist myself) to see an arts venue crammed with Latinos, and to see two amazing Latino arts organizations – the show is a coproduction between PRTT and Teatro SEA – working together to celebrate history. The show will be touring soon, hitting Santurce in August and Pittsburgh later – I have to imagine they can expect huge crowds on that turf, the two lands Clemente called home. I hope, as the show continues, it gets further workshopped and developed, because what I saw was a lot of fun, and there’s so much potential for greatness in telling this story.

Frankly, though, just seeing Modesto Lacen play Roberto Clemente again would be the worth the price of another admission; to get to see such a talented ensemble work together for just $20 seems like a steal.