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Review: The Summer King hits a home run

The Summer King opened its first of four public performances in Pittsburgh Saturday evening. Photo credit: David Bachman Photography

Pittsburgh, PA — Since 2003, Daniel Sonenberg has envisioned a crowd full of engaged patrons admiring his work on an individual who not only excelled in baseball, but helped put the wheels in motion to break baseball’s color barrier.

Amidst all of the applause during Saturday night’s curtain call of The Summer King, Jacqueline Echols, who plays Helen Gibson, was waving the artistic team up on stage and saved the emotional Sonenberg for last.

Sonenberg was given a standing ovation as he cupped his hand, looked to the heavens, took a bow and finally melted into lead actor Alfred Walker’s arms, all in reaction to a dream fulfilled.

The Summer King composer Daniel Sonenberg looks to the heavens during Saturday night’s curtain call. Photo credit: David Bachman photography

Sonenberg’s appreciation of Josh Gibson began at a young age which helped fuel his passion and determination for this opera to get shown on a larger scale.

The opera is indeed suitable for many different kinds of patrons.

For sports fans, there of course is baseball action which is presented in a unique way several times throughout the opera. Additionally, there are the familiar Homestead Grays jerseys which are worn during several baseball related moments in the opera. There also are some of others who played with Josh Gibson such as Cool Papa Bell and Sam Bankhead who are consistent through the opera while both Jackie Robinson and Joe DiMaggio both make appearances in clever ways.

Pittsburgh fans will be enjoy seeing various landmarks such as the Crawford Grill which show attention to time and detail. There also is a local reference often repeated in a scene involving one of Gibson’s lines “In the little Monongahela River town of Homestead” which was borrowed from University of Pittsburgh professor Rob Ruck’s book Sandlot Seasons.

Opera fans certainly were not excluded when it comes to enjoyment of this play. They will be challenged by a diverse, complex score that has a variety of layers and aspects to it.

Alfred Walker plays the role of Josh Gibson, and does a great job of navigating through many different scenes. Gibson is often thought of as the baseball player but it is those scenes away from the diamond that also help make the opera what it is.

Walker brings a charm to the character, even in the second act when Gibson’s health begins to decline. Whether Gibson is in Mexico, Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith’s office or quite literally his death bed, Walker excels and handles the twists and turns appropriately.

In the opera Gibson, certainly is flawed, but it does not take anything away from the hero that he is.

As Gibson, Walker sings of the two things that mean the most to him, Helen and the game, of course referring to baseball. Both of these are quite clear as the opera progresses.

Jacqueline Echols is also very impressive as Helen Gibson. Though her role is limited to two scenes, Echols makes the most of her time on stage and her parallelism in the opera was an absolute joy to watch.

The beginning of the opera has a slower start as two barbers played by Norman Shankle and Phillip Gay essentially introduce Josh Gibson to the audience before the first baseball sequence. Though the scene is a bit long, it does set the stage for what is to come while also setting the stage for the final scene and epilogue.

Several performers play multiple roles in this opera but Ray Very’s roles as radio announcer, Clark Griffith and Branch Rickey are all very believable and appropriately spaced out in the opera. Very’s roles can be easy to overlook, but he makes each his own.

Denyce Graves was a wonderful choice to play Grace who enters the opera having won the daily number and meeting Josh Gibson. Graves plays very well off Walker and while little is known about Grace herself, Graves does a great job with the interpretation and allows the viewer to feel emotion with everything she sings.

As Wendell Smith, Sean Panikkar has a scene where he sings to Josh about his journey and why Gibson’s “lightning” is something which could change everything. I appreciated the score for this song possibly more than every song given the consistent music with each point Smith brought up to Gibson.

Kenneth Kellogg was a good choice to play Sam Bankhead and it is in several scenes that Kellogg plays an effective “right-hand man” of Gibson. Kellogg shines most in the second act, but certainly makes his mark throughout the opera, especially in his aria immediately after Gibson’s passing. Part of his aria centers around Gibson’s death and how the latter led the battle of breaking the color barrier and getting to “the Promised Land”, but was “never allowed to cross the Jordan River”.

Throughout the opera, Gibson’s infamous Yankee Stadium home run is referenced, but what was consistent about it was the way the venue was always sung the same by any performer. It was effective and sung in a way which complimented the home run.

There were small, minor hiccups but given the quick scene changes, not to mention opening night jitters, it is understandable why a couple of words were said incorrectly or a swing of the bat came before a completed pitch.

In summary, this is an opera where there is something for everyone, is easy to follow along, allows you to root for and relate to the main characters and perhaps most importantly can be understood regardless of opera expertise.

The Summer King continues it four-date run with showings May 2, 5 and 7. A student matinee will also be held on May 4.

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