Encore Michigan

‘The Summer King’ depicts tragedy of baseball great Josh Gibson

Review May 13, 2018 David Kiley

DETROIT,Mich.–Baseball and opera. It doesn’t happen, except for a staged flash mob in Comerica Park a few years ago to promote the Michigan Opera season. But why not? The front door of the Detroit Opera House is a hard hit fastball away from the Detroit Tigers’ home field.

Performing this week is The Summer King, an opera depicting the tragic playing career and life of Negro Baseball League “phenom” and Baseball Hall of Famer Josh Gibson, known in the 1930s as “The black Babe Ruth.”

The opera, written by Daniel Sonenberg (music) and Sonenberg, Daniel Nester and Mark Campbell (libretto), debuted last year in Pittsburgh where Gibson spent his teenage years and a large chunk of his career.

Gibson’s life lends itself to an opera, tragic as it was. Just as the slugger was beginning his career, he married the great love of his life, Helen, at age 18. She died giving birth to premature twins. While the country was suffering through the Great Depression, Gibson was lighting up the Negro leagues. Underpaid and restricted from playing in Major League Baseball, Gibson also played in Mexico and The Dominican. In 1946, at 34, he was passed over in favor of Jackie Robinson by The Brooklyn Dodgers to break the color barrier. By that time, Gibson was sick with a brain tumor he had been playing with. And in January of 1947, just as Robinson was tuning up for spring training to make history, Gibson died.

Gibson (played by baritone Lester Lynch) had a remarkable, but tough to document, career. By accounts he hit around 800 homeruns over 16 years in a combination of Negro League, Mexican League, Dominican League and barnstorming and exhibition games. The statistics have been cobbled together from newspaper box scores and articles. He was also a catcher by position. Had Gibson been able to play in the Major Leagues, he would have commanded top dollar for the day.

Sonenberg’s music has many influences. I detected everything from jazz to Gilbert & Sullivan to mariachi to Arnold Schoenberg. His journeys into atonal passages are definitely his less successful. Fortunately, he does not overdo it.

The story starts with two barbers, one older (Norman Shankle) and one younger (Phillip Gay), with the former trying to tell the latter how great Gibson and other Negro League players were in the heyday of the league before Robinson took the field for the Dodgers and the Negro League started to fracture with the best players jumping to the integrating league. We get a quick look at Josh playing sandlot ball on stage, and then jump to the start of Josh’s life at 18, his marriage to Helen (Jacqueline Echols), his rise in stardom, travels to Mexico, relationship with long-time girlfriend (Grace), a meeting with Washington Senators owners Clark and Calvin Griffiths, and ultimately his sickness and death.We close with the barbers, bringing the story full circle.

The set design by Andrew Lieberman is simple, handled mostly with movable grandstands and three large billboard-like screens that have different images rear projected to show a ballpark surrounding, street scenes, Mexico, etc.

Mr. Lynch’s depiction of Gibson is very solid. He captures very well the thick-bodied man-child aspect of Gibson’s personality as recorded by the people who knew him. He was not educated. And while he could be seduced by the idea of playing in the major leagues, he was also a simple soul who loved being a huge fish in the smaller Negro League pond. And eating meals outside the back doors of restaurants when the teams toured apparently did not grate on him like it did others. A big man, he liked his food and just wanted it hot and good. Lynch’s vocals are also very solid, though at times, Sonenberg’s musical approach and libretto does not necessarily serve the singers very well.

Indeed, one thought that seemed to be falling on the audience like rain on a ballgame is whether opera is the right medium for this story, or whether the score fits the mood of the story. I kept thinking that maybe a musical theater approach in the tradition of Carousel or an operatic score with more musical theater influences like Porgy and Bess would feel more apt.

Supporting roles that are notable: Deborah Nansteel as Grace is exceptional both in her depiction of the girlfriend who tries to nudge Josh to stand-up taller for himself and her mezzo vocals that were mesmerizing at times; Sean Panniker, as Pittsburgh Gazette sports reporter Wendell Smith, lit up the stage in his scenes with both slick acting and a clarion tenor.

Overall, Summer King has some scenes that linger too long, and at times it can feel like we are wearing shoes that don’t fit quite right. But what stands up and stands out is the story of a lionized hero to legions of African American citizens in one of the darkest times in U.S. history. That he was buried in an unmarked grave doubles down on the tragedy of Gibson’s too-short life. I’m glad he got his plaque in Cooperstown and that he now has a very solid work that will be performed around the country.

I’m rooting for this opera. Josh Gibson once hit a homerun clear out of Yankee Stadium. I’d like to see the depiction of his life do the same, so I hope that the composer and authors of the libretto will continue to tinker just like Gibson himself would have tinkered with his swing if he found himself falling a bit short of the fences.