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Diamonds

Switch-hitting actors get The Monarchs of KC to third base standing up.

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With the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum here, it's surprising that The Monarchs of KC is the first theatrical salute to the team that Jackie Robinson left in 1945 to go to the Brooklyn Dodgers. Written by Gene Mackey and directed by Jacqee Gafford, with a Danny Cox score, Theatre for Young America's musical fable supposes that the ghosts of various Monarchs players appear to some fans, itching to tell their stories.

An obvious character is Satchel Paige (George Forbes), who was black baseball's greatest star. Wilber "Bullet" Rogan (Johnnie Bowls), whose moniker underestimated his pitching arm, and Josh Gibson (Cox), the "black Babe Ruth," are also featured. Gibson's tale is particularly poignant; after a career pining for the integration he knew would eventually come to the major leagues, he died two months before Robinson's ascent.

A welcome twist is that several women played for the Negro Leagues, including Toni Stone (Lynn King), who may have been trotted out to boost ticket sales but still managed a .243 batting average playing second base and was inducted into the Hall of Fame. Add Robinson and Buck O'Neil (who answered questions and, at age 92, generally inspired the audience of the performance I attended) and it's clear the show has the riches to be epic. Even clocking in at only 45 minutes, it boasts a surplus of heart without sacrificing the history.

Yet the show is also a bit underwhelming and, at times, off its bearings. There are odd similes, such as how the Negro Leagues "dried up like spit on a hot summer day," and jarring sound cues that could be more smoothly executed. The sound of a ball hitting a bat is like a semi hitting a concrete wall, and other effects seem either to lag or be rushed. Background slides of the old stadium on Brooklyn Street are cool, but a few others are just strange; one could be a sonogram. Cox's songs are serviceable if a bit redundant -- the word dream is used a whole lot -- and the choreography is a tad reminiscent of a variety show at an amusement park.

The actors, though, all of whom are double cast, step up to the plate. There's a sweet scene between Forbes and Bowls, as Paige and Robinson, respectively, in which the latter candidly tells the former he was the one who should have risen first. And King is perfectly spunky as Stone, whose temper boils when an announcer feminizes her with the adjective little. Like the show, she may be short, but she's far from puny.

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