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BWW Review: The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis' Amazing SATCHEL PAIGE AND THE KANSAS CITY SWING


With spring training winding down, and the approach of another baseball season approaching, The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis closes their 49th season with a terrific selection; SATCHEL PAIGE AND THE KANSAS CITY SWING. Set after the end of World War II, at a time when race relations were beginning to show small, incremental signs of progress, this story offers us an entertaining and thoughtful look at a time in our history when a beloved pastime could become one of the catalysts for the civil rights movement that would follow years later. It's a snapshot of an era which also reminds us that we still have issues that remain unresolved or fully addressed. And, it's told through the eyes of legendary pitcher Satchel Paige, who played in the Negro Leagues before making his debut in the majors as its oldest "rookie". Full of tension, disappointment, and Paige's own rascally sense of humor, the Rep's lovingly crafted production is a true must-see, and deserves a game ball!

When we first see Satchel Paige he's tending to a baseball diamond instead of commanding one. It's a sad sight that lingers, and then we're whisked back in time to 1947 as the majors are winding down another season, but one that featured the integration of Jackie Robinson. Satchel, his considerable pride hurt by his not becoming the first to cross over, embarks on a series of barnstorming games between the Negro League all-stars and a group of major league players put together by Bob Feller (a young Stan Musial would one day participate as well), traveling from site to site by plane, and basically trying to gain as much acceptance and goodwill for the possible opportunities that lay ahead as they could, while showcasing their talent as well. Paige's life and loves are explored through the use of music, the atmosphere of a boarding house in Kansas City, and naturally, through his passion for baseball, leading up to his eventual signing with the World Series bound Cleveland Indians.

Robert Karma Robinson is sheer perfection as Satchel, not merely due to his bearing a lean and lanky physical appearance to the famed hurler, but also in the way that he's able to convey the grating sense of embittered resentment that's concealed by a larger than life persona that paints him as a convivial prankster. He's even got Paige's funky windup and delivery down pat. Michael Chenevert also convinces as the legendary Buck O'Neil, and Peterson Townsend is quite good as Art Young, who vies for the affections of boarding house owner Mrs. Hopkins' (a splendid Vanessa A.Jones) daughter, Moira (the equally talented and appealing Tsilala Brock), along with the fiery Franky Palmieri (a splendidly intense Sam Wolf). Kohler McKenzie also does stellar work as the more even keeled Bob Feller. Saxophonist Eric Person adds to the overall mood (original music by Bobby Watson) by shadowing Satchel, giving him his own accompaniment of sorts, and bringing some of feeling contained in the music that dominated that era to the tale.

Trey Ellis and Ricardo Khan have conceived a very engaging evening of theater that focuses our attention on one of the most unforgettable character in baseball history, and certainly one who deserved a better fate. An earlier integration, really, would have made for some unbelievable games. One wonders what baseball would have been like if some of the Negro League greats had had their opportunity arrive while they were still in their prime. Khan's direction keeps the action moving briskly, and the performances are solid across the board. John Ezell's scenic design is a sheer delight, and sweetened by Tom Mardikes' amazing sound design, Rocco DiSanti's projections, and Victor En Yu Tan's wonderful lighting scheme. Lauren T. Roark nicely recreates the era with her costumes.

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis has a real winner on their hands. SATCHEL PAIGE AND THE KANSAS CITY SWING is a memorable experience that's not to be missed! This diamond gem runs through April 10, 2016 on the main stage of the Loretto-Hilton.

Photo credit: Lon Brauer

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