The phenom black pitcher and baseball Hall of Famer gets his own musical in Satchel Paige and the Kansas City Swing. The musical sections, directed and exceptionally choreographed by Patdro Harris with music and lyrics by Carlton Leake, are major league, indeed, full of '40s swing pastiche and knocked out of the ballpark by the performing pros; it's the book scenes, written by Trey Ellis and Ricardo Khan, that are minor league. The drama is so stuffed with auxiliary subplots, characters, and incidences, that Paige (a wonderfully flinty Charles Westley Lattimore, Jr.) is left stranded on base. The creators never manage to bring him home.
Paige has a great story, an American saga of grit, talent, determination, and leonine pride. A superstar in the Negro League, his fantastic abilities on the mound were legendary and drew fawning admiration and overflowing crowds from both the white sports establishment, pro players, and everyday fans. During his heyday as star pitcher for the Kansas City Monarchs or while barnstorming around the country as head of his own “Satchel Paige All-Stars,” or featured in a Life Magazine pictorial, he was as well known and revered as Ruth, Dizzy Dean, and Joe DiMaggio. He had been around so long that when he was signed by The Cleveland Indians in 1948 as major league's first black pitcher, he was 42 years old, the oldest rookie ever.
Age did not hinder him, and his blistering fastball never failed him. Had he been born a few years earlier, he probably would have been the first black player in major league baseball. The amazing Jackie Robinson, Paige's former Monarchs teammate, holds that title, having signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. The age of racial discrimination, in sports at least, was finally over. The taunting, spitting, and abject race baiting didn't end as soon, but they, too, finally faded away, a relic of the past.
Paige had his own demons, but talent was never one of them. He just wanted to be the first.
Dexterously, the musical fields some of this, making Paige a natural, naturally, but showing him tightly-wound, a good-time Charlie, but someone who always knew his worth. Lattimore, with raspy voice, sinewy as a blade of grass, hits a homer. First seen as a groundsman laying down the chalk line, we don't even recognize this yahoo as the great Paige, which is a nice touch to begin the musical. We think he's the crackerjack seller, a groupie, the team mascot maybe. But when he starts pitching, the gods are in his arm. This is Lattimore's play, if only Ellis and Khan would get out of his way.
Damn Yankees (1955), the only successful baseball musical, has the devil and sexy minion Lola to stir the plot, Satchel has Homer. Ellis and Khan work overtime to give their work a modicum of extra weight with the constant references to The Iliad, but these are forced and seem way out of the ballpark. Everyone quotes Homer, from best friend Buck O'Neil (the nimble Andre' Neal), boarding house proprietor and sometime Paige mistress, Mrs. Hopkins (Andrea Boronell), ace pitcher and tour manager Bob Feller (Dave Harris), to the Jazzman (the suave, scene-stealing, easy-movin' Anthony Boggess-Glover). The Jazzman is the show's emcee of sorts, gliding us slickly into its premise with “Be Careful What You Ask For” and closing with the stirring anthem “Closed Doors Will Open.” He's around to gently prick our conscience or remind Paige what glories await if he has patience. You can simmer, the Jazzman implies, just don't boil.
Harris and Leake, the wizards responsible for some of Ensemble Theatre's most boppin' musical hits, do beautiful work here. The Big Band-type tunes are redolent of the swingin' '40s, always distinctive in phrasing and lyrics. Only “Real Life,” a duet for Feller and Franky (a lively Geovanny Acosta), a ballplayer who's hot to trot with Mrs. Hopkins's daughter, Moira (a radiantly voiced Estee Burks), falls flat. It should have the swagger of “Swingin' on a Star,” but turns sour and pedestrian. This is their one number that has no real swing. The other numbers are rhythmic marvels with bats knocking on the ground and hand slapping counterpoint that conjure the best of Michael Kidd's Hollywood choreography or the staging of Stanley Donen.
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There's so much drama in Paige's story that goes unexcavated in this show. As sprightly staged as it is, the musical is filled with more characters and themes than it can possible handle. The whole panoply of black history is squeezed uncomfortably into Paige's tale, like Procrustes' bed – speaking of Greek myths, that Paige gets shortchanged. A scene about biscuits and hot pepper chicken has no place here. Character arcs go nowhere or anachronistically foreshadow what's to come in American history, which makes the social messages stand out in sharp relief, when what's needed is subtle impressionism.
There's plenty to savor musically in Satchel Paige. It's close to a home run, certainly a triple. A few more red pencils on the script would work wonders. The songs and staging are exemplary, as are Lattimore, . Burks, Neal, and Boggess-Glover.
Paige was one of a kind. I wish his musical were, too. Maybe later. Like the great Satchel, it's got to wait for its time in the sun.
Satchel Page and the Kansas City Swing continues through July 31 at Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main. For more information, call 713-520-0055 or visit ensemblehouston.com. $30-$61.