To Pittsburghers of a particular if broad age range, the number "21" connotes not the (long-ago) beginning of adulthood but a baseball player whose untimely death sealed a legend that will never die. Alki Steriopoulos' hagiographic new musical works well here because Roberto Clemente is still so revered. It also helps that the Point Park University Conservatory Theatre Co. has a wealth of design talent and an enviable depth of performers.
In its world premiere at the Pittsburgh Playhouse, 21 is spotty — not surprising for a new play. If you're not already immersed in Clemente history, the plot may be hard to follow. Fortunately, the audience can fill in most of the details. Roberto Clemente Walker, unpopular with Pittsburgh Pirates fans as a hot-dog rookie in the 1950s, was cheered as a superstar by those same fans even before the 1971 World Series made him a household name nationally.
That transition — by white Pittsburghers — from racist rejection to hero worship, is one of Pittsburgh native Steriopoulos' main themes. But it's somewhat undercut by casting a light-skinned actor as the robustly black Clemente. Jeffrey Gorti, largely adequate in the title role, leads a cast of 31, directed and superbly choreographed by Richard Sabellico. Music director Douglas Levine conducts a most capable orchestra.
Much of the music is by-the-yard Webberism, but some numbers sparkle, especially the Damn Yankees-meets-West Side Story "Hey Hoolie!" dance for Gorti and Bucs. Bruce Franz and Nick McDonough shine as slick Pirate scouts in the vaudevillian "Take Good Care of Our Boy." Beatriz Naranjo, as Vera Clemente, sings of the sexy joy of a virtuous marriage in "Only One." Keaton Jadwin upends the legendary manager Danny Murtaugh with the jaunty "A Pain in the Neck."
The huge production, though stunning, often stumbles. The dancing, great. Vocals? Meh. Sloppy anachronisms don't help. My "favorite" is the historically ad-free Forbes Field scoreboard depicted in 1960 with a late-'60s-Pop-design logo for a beverage not then even available in the 'Burgh.
Still, 21 celebrates the life and memory of the Great One, and for many Pittsburghers, that's enough.