The history-making 1962 induction of Jackie Robinson, America’s first African-American major league baseball player, into the Baseball Hall Of Fame provides a backdrop for Brian Golden’s nostalgic Cooperstown, now getting a first-rate West Coast Premiere at The Road Theatre Company’s brand spanking new second home—The Road On Magnolia.

cooperstown - 2 Old-fashioned in the best sense of the term, Golden’s dramedy centers on Junior (Cecil Burroughs), the African-American de facto manager of Jimmy’s Diner, a Cooperstown, NY, landmark to which none other than Jackie Robinson himself is scheduled to pay a visit on the afternoon of his induction, two days hence.

With owner Jimmy Fletcher set to accompany Robinson to the meet-and-greet, marking the absentee owner’s first visit in two years to his eponymous diner, Junior is scurrying to complete a detailed report he hopes will convince Jimmy to make him the diner’s official manager.

Complicating Junior’s life at the diner is his waitress kid sister Sharree (Jamye Grant), whose involvement in the nascent black power movement not only troubles her older brother but threatens to derail Sunday’s reception.

Also waiting tables at the diner is “Dylan” (Alexa Shoemaker), 20something, Caucasian, and the biggest baseball (and Bob Dylan) fan in town, hence both her excitement about Jackie Robinson’s pending visit and the nickname she has picked in honor of the rising young folk-rock star.

Brand new in Cooperstown (and to the diner) is small-town hayseed Huck (TJ McNeill), raised refreshingly free of prejudice by a baseball-and-Jackie-loving daddy, and as excited as all get-out by news that he may well be about to meet his hero. Perhaps even more exciting to Huck is the realization that in Dylan, he may well have met the baseball-stats-loving girl of his dreams.

la-et-cm-cooperstown-at-the-road-theatre-compa-001 Completing the cast of characters is Grace (Ann Hu), Jimmy’s maritally frustrated Asian-American wife, whose connection to Junior may be considerably deeper than merely that of boss’s spouse and employee.

Taking place from Friday evening to Sunday morning on that historic July 1962 weekend, Cooperstown harks back to classic ‘50s/’60s dramas like William Inge’s Bus Stop. Like Inge, playwright Golden creates real, three-dimensional characters, albeit of a more rainbow-colored variety, each of them someone we enjoy getting to know. Yes, their stories are relatively minor league in the overall scheme of things (and assorted plot threads are a tad too neatly tied up), but I for one have no desire to complain, time spent with Golden’s characters being time well spent.

Cooperstown will likely inspire younger theatergoers to google Jackie Robinson, in movie theaters these days thanks to the new biopic 42, starring Chadwick Boseman as Jackie and Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey, the baseball executive who broke the color barrier by signing Robinson to the 1947 Brooklyn Dodgers. (Jason Collins’ recent coming-out has also brought comparisons to Robinson’s role in the Civil Rights movement.)

5fb45342318cbceb76aa3d48ccf9e5d2 There’s not an unsympathetic character on the Road On Magnolia stage, and with director Darryl Johnson coaxing pitch-perfect performances from an impassioned Burroughs, a feisty Grant, a perky Shoemaker, a peppy McNeill, and vibrant Hu, there’s not a weak link in the cast.

Playwright Golden does falter in historical accuracy. 1962 seems a few years too early for Sharree’s black power group; Junior and Sharree would have been “Negro” and not “black,” and Grace “Oriental” or “Asiatic” and not “Asian” in 1962; and Jimmy and Grace’s interracial marriage, while not illegal in the Northeast as it was and would remain in sixteen mostly Southern states for another five years, would probably not have gone as unremarked in ’62 as it does in Golden’s play. As for Dylan’s obsession with Dylan, the soon-to-be superstar’s very first album was in fact released only four months before Jackie Robinson’s induction, and the anachronistically spun “The Times They Are A Changing” not until two years after Robinson’s visit to Cooperstown.

Still these are relatively minor quibbles, particularly in a production as all-around first-rate as Road Theatre audiences have become accustomed to seeing. Desma Murphy’s impeccable, minutely-detailed scenic design takes its place at the top of a hypothetical list of Best Diner Sets. Derrick McDaniel’s accomplished lighting design does everything a lighting design should do, particularly in dramatic scenes. Jocelyn Hublau Parker’s costumes evoke the early 1960s to nostalgic effect. David B. Marling’s pitch-perfect sound design, one which includes an authentic sounding replication of a much-played jukebox’s surface-noisy 45s, completes an overall tiptop design package.

Cooperstown is produced by Anthony Cosmano, Elizabeth Southard, and Johnson. Taylor Gilbert and Sam Anderson are executive producers. Danielle Lynnae Burrie is stage manager and Danielle Stephens assistant stage manager.

It’s a pleasure to welcome Jackie Robinson “home” in Cooperstown, the baseball legend having grown up only minutes from The Road On Magnolia in nearby Pasadena, where he graduated from Pasadena Junior College (now PCC) in 1939. Older theatergoers will appreciate Golden’s sentimental journey back to the early 1960s. Younger theatergoers will find this “Welcome To The ‘60s” an edifying companion piece to the similarly time-framed Hairspray. Regardless of age, Cooperstown makes for an entertaining, engaging evening of theater.

The Road On Magnolia, 10747 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
May 24, 2013
Photos: Deverill Weekes

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