Friday, April 26, 2013

UMKC "Kansas City Swing" review by kellyluck

'Swing' Deftly turned slice of KC History Rating: 4

Kansas City Swing
UMKC Theatre

Last night at the UMKC theatre saw the debut of "Kansas City Swing", a new play by Richardo Kahn and Trey Ellis. Based on actual people and events in Kansas City history, it is very much a hometown production. And while in other towns this may conjure up images of cheap painted sets and earnest cornball performances, here in KC we do things differently: this is a play deep rooted in our city's social and cultural history, grown in the fertile soil of the remarkable people who made that time and place their own, and brought to blossom by the rhythm of our music.

It looks like rain as Satchel Paige (Rob Karma Robinson) and his all-stars are slated to meet up with Bob Feller (Nick Papamihalakis) and his barnstormers for a night exhibition game. Unfortunately Jackie Robinson and his Dodgers are taking on the Cardinals in St Louis so when the storm breaks, the respective captains pack it in and head to the guesthouse of Mrs. Hopkins (Janaé Mitchell), with a few of their teammates in tow. While there, rookies Art Young (Thomas E Tucker) and Franky Palmieri (Michael R Pauley) find themselves quite taken with Mrs Hopkins' daughter Moira (Alisha Espinosa), the not-quite-friendly rivalry of the field spilling over into a romantic triangle that eventually has severe effects for all concerned. Through the night, the players and their hostesses listen to the game on the radio and discuss baseball, business, and the ever-changing world which, in the first few years after the close of the second world war, suddenly seems to be changing even faster than ever before. Paige's friend and teammate Buck O'Neil (Antonio Jerron Glass) admits he's been asked to consider a scouting position, and isn't sure whether to take it. Feller sees promise in Young, and suggests they talk seriously about his future career in the morning. And all the while outside, the storm rages on.

Now, understand. Baseball is the name of the game, but this is not your typical sports story. This is an unblinking look at a certain time and place when the world was on the tipping point, and no one was quite sure how it was going to go. Your humble reviewer, never one for the vicissitudes of athletic competition, was nonetheless riveted by the drama presented onstage. Robinson's Paige has miles of personality, and Ms. Mitchell's Homer-quoting Mrs. Hopkins brings a wonderful edge to her character. It is good to see Tucker and Pauley treading the familiar boards at the Helen F. Spencer Theatre once again, and indeed all the players exhibited confident, effortlessly authentic performances. Costumes and scenery were spot on, and some interesting business with the lighting was interesting while not being distracting. During a nightmare in the final act, the stage elements are perhaps overdone a bit--the echo in particular seems a bit over-the-top, even for a dream sequence--but overall the presentation was strong throughout.

Special mention must be made of the music. The music is composed by local jazz legend Bobby Watson, who also performs onstage at several points in the production. Those who have been privileged to hear Mr. Watson play will need no further explanation, and for those who have not... well, no explanation is sufficient. He is a master of his craft, and can do things with an alto sax one would not have thought possible. Jazz roots run deep in this city, and the history of it and the Negro Leagues are inextricably entwined. One could not have asked for a better accompaniment to this tale.

All things considered, Kahn et al have put together an excellent bit of work that should be of interest to anyone who is interested in history, enjoys a well-written drama, or just loves the game. The play was created in partnership with the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, to which this reviewer would also commend your attention. Unfortunately, unlike the aforesaid museum, the play only runs through the 28th. This is an excellent production, and readers are encouraged unreservedly to make the effort to see it if they can.

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