As the weather in New York warms and flowers begin to bloom, Broadway apparently has turned to bromance.
The on-court and off-court relationship between Los Angeles Lakers great Earvin "Magic" Johnson and Boston Celtics legend Larry Bird during the 1980s is the subject of an unlikely but sweet play by the folks who also mashed together theater and sport in "Lombardi."
"Magic/Bird," which opened Wednesday at the Longacre Theatre, reunites most of the "Lombardi" team, including director Thomas Kail and playwright Eric Simonson, who crafted his somewhat thin script from conversations with Johnson and Bird.
Like their play about legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi, the team behind "Magic/Bird" cleverly uses old video footage of the two ballplayers — the National Basketball Association is a co-producer — without letting it become an ESPN special.
Simonson's script is best anyway when he's telling the private moments that cameras never caught: This is the story of Johnson and Bird as bitter rivals who grow to become friends. One thing they always had for each other is respect — in fact, we learn each one drove their rival to work harder, hit the gym one more time, practice free throws endlessly and add baby sky hooks to their arsenals.
But make no mistake: This is a kind of love story, albeit one between an outgoing African-American at ease in Hollywood and a taciturn white guy from rural Indiana who detested the limelight. They find out they both came from big families and value not being cramped; both also revere their tough fathers and value hard work on the court. By the time these two guys hug on stage for the first time only minutes from the end, the audience sighs.
Kevin Daniels plays Johnson with natural charisma and an ever-present smile. There's something puppyish about him; he has that endearing quality of trying to act tough, but also trying to sneak a peek at what his rival is up to.
Tug Coker as Bird sparks most of the night's biggest laughs just for his dry delivery of a few words. His Bird is laconic and stubborn, a guy who always has a ball in his hand and seems to prefer inspecting it to ever having to talk to anyone.
Kail deserves credit for pulling off a dynamic 1-hour-40-minute show composed of dozens of vignettes and marrying them to various projections, action sequences with real lay-ups and dribbling, dreamy sequences in which the action is stylized, plus four other actors who play almost 20 parts. It helps that Coker has real comfort with a basketball in his hand, unlike some of the cast at "Lysistrata Jones," the last Broadway show with basketball sequences.
Ball control is needed here. During the show, hoops swing down and then disappear, old footage is broadcast, dozens of outfits are put on, and parts of the stage actually spin thanks to David Korins' set design. When the cast come out for the curtain call, it's hard not to be surprised that there are only six people up there.
Both Johnson and Bird signed off on the script, so don't expect any dwelling on dark secrets. Credit goes for Johnson for admitting in one scene that he liked sleeping around and also for how scary it was when he admitted he had HIV. Bird must have revealed very little of what motivates him, but Coker has managed to fill the role with a quiet, heroic, ego-less stubbornness.
One of Simonson's neatest tricks is using a couple of barflies to help frame parts of the play. Some of Simonson's least successful are the attempts to make the story bigger than what it is. References to busing, racism and exploitation of athletes are picked up but then dribble away.
Also awkward is the transition from the raucous opening, in which each of the performers is introduced in sweats as if they were players before a big home game, and the first real scene in which Johnson is on the phone with Bird in a tense call to tell him he's got a deadly virus. But after that, the play progresses like a romantic comedy as we wait until these two rivals are brought together kicking and screaming.
The supporting cast certainly get a work out, too. Dierdre O'Connell plays Bird's mom (who plays a key role in getting the title characters together) as well as a bartender, Bird's wife and a reporter. She's terrific and soulful.
Peter Scolari seems to be having too much fun playing his slate of characters, which includes coaching giants Red Auerbach, Jerry Buss and Pat Riley. Francois Battiste, among his various roles, is a wickedly funny Bryant Gumbel, and Robert Manning Jr. is solid as teammates Norm Nixon and Michael Cooper.
With "Lombardi" and now "Magic/Bird," lead producers Fran Kirmser and Tony Ponturo have made their point: Interesting drama can be made from sports, and Broadway theaters can attract nontraditional audiences by presenting sports-related stories. Now it's just a question of how far they'll go. Can a hockey story be next?
The hoops-themed Broadway bio “Magic/Bird” doesn’t technically foul out, but it’s not exactly a winner either.
Ironically, Eric Simonson’s by-the-numbers and stiffly acted account of the on- and off-court relationship of National Basketball Association superstars Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Larry Bird makes both great athletes look smaller than life.
The show, produced in league with the NBA, is bookended by scenes of Johnson’s stunning 1991 HIV diagnosis. But the focus is the duo’s famous 1980s rivalry.
With Bird playing forward for the Boston Celtics and Johnson positioned at point guard for the Los Angeles Lakers, they battled for three championships and rescued the sinking NBA.
As in his NFL-sponsored play “Lombardi” that ran last season, Simonson relies on characters who are reporters to convey information. To go beyond a mere Wikipedia entry, he also traces the players’ unlikely friendship, which crossed racial divides and on-court competition.
The showcase scene, such as it is, comes when the athletes film a sneaker commercial in Bird’s hometown of French Lick, Ind., and bond over lunch with Larry’s candid mother.
As a dramatic meal, “M/B” is a slim spread. B-ball handling consists of a couple of layups and passes. Videos from key games and scenes between a Celtics and Lakers fan in a Boston bar pad the production to 85 minutes.
Director Thomas Kail enlivens things as he can, including slick graphics to illustrate b-ball plays — the same trick from “Lombardi” but it adds visual zap.
Tug Coker, who plays Bird, could use a jolt. The “hick from French Lick,” as Bird was called, was low-key. But Coker is pure cardboard. Kevin Daniels fares a bit better and brings spark that evokes some of Magic’s magnetism.
Four actors play multiple roles as relatives, journos and jocks, including Deirdre O’Connell, Peter Scolari, Robert Manning Jr. and Francois Battiste, who scores with his pitchy-voiced Bryant Gumbel imitation.
At one point, Magic and Bird are referred to as Castor and Pollux, the two brightest stars in the constellation Gemini. In the sky, they’re brilliant. On stage, dimly illuminated.
What makes “Magic/Bird” work isn’t the mystique still attached to its subjects, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, legends though they are.
Rather, the joint tale that opened on Broadway last night successfully trades on a tried-and-true setup: “Magic/Bird” is basically “The Odd Couple” with hoops.
On the one hand, we have Earvin “Magic” Johnson (Kevin Daniels): African-American, gregarious and charming, embracing his fame in the flashy fashion typical of his LA team, the Lakers.
On the other, there’s Larry Bird (Tug Coker): the white hick from French Lick, Ind., laconic and reserved, the main man of Boston’s Celtics and their working-class fans.
The scenes between the two are often quite funny, especially since playwright Eric Simonson and director Thomas Kail — the team behind “Lombardi,” a stage portrait of football’s answer to Yoda — exaggerate the contrast between the men. Magic is the squeaky-clean Mr. Happy. Bird, who could trash-talk with the best of them, becomes a retiring guy who delivers one-word sentences in a monotone.
The personal differences translate to a larger confrontation about race and class, with the perennial East Coast versus West Coast feud to spice things up.
The show’s tone remains light, though. Typical are a couple of humorous scenes in a Boston bar, pitting a black Lakers fan (Francois Battiste, snappy as well playing a squeaky-voiced Bryant Gumbel) against a white Celtics supporter (Peter Scolari, who also impersonates Lakers coach Pat Riley and Celtics general manager Red Auerbach).
And unlike many real-life dramas, this story doesn’t have a tragic ending. Magic’s 1991 announcement that he was HIV-positive concluded his career with the Lakers, but you could see this revelation as having had a positive impact in terms of educating people and, perhaps, making a sheltered player grow up.
Magic and Bird also taught a lesson in sportsmanship by feeding on their animosity to better their game. “He’s the best there is,” Bird says of Magic. “I don’t know what I’m doing here.” So he practices some more.
Eventually, they became solid friends.
The only time the 90-minute show’s pace falters is during the overlong scene when Bird’s mom, Georgia (Deirdre O’Connell, stellar in several supporting roles), invites Magic for lunch in her Indiana home.
Simonson and Kail should have turned off that folksy faucet and given us more b-ball action, especially since the show makes judicious use of archival footage — a marked improvement on “Lombardi,” which was all locker-room speeches and domestic scenes.
Here, video of the real Magic and Bird takes over from Daniels and Coker after they set up baskets. We also relive key moments from the historic 1980s Lakers-Celtics finals via excerpts from the telecasts.
Even Nevin Steinberg’s sound design contributes, as when it mixes the faint echo of thumping balls with the squeak of sneakers on a court, creating an almost subliminal sense of energy.
Yep, as far as bioplays go, this one’s got bounce.
About a third of the way through “Magic/Bird,” a new play about the basketball greats Magic Johnson and Larry Bird that opened on Broadway Wednesday night at the Longacre Theater, a moment of conflict, that crucial building block of drama, finally arrives.
Taunting insults are exchanged. Simmering hostility is heated to a boil. Words are flung like fists, and violence threatens to erupt.
Unfortunately this tense encounter does not involve either of the play’s nice-guy central characters but anonymous fans in a bar, rooting for their favorite teams and displaying the Rottweiler instincts of sports maniacs the world over. Their brief, volatile encounter turns out to be the most dramatic moment in “Magic/Bird,” an efficiently informative but uninspired trek through the lives of two towering (forgive the pun) figures in sports history.
Written by Eric Simonson and directed by Thomas Kail, the team behind the modest popular hit “Lombardi,” about the celebrated football coach Vince Lombardi, “Magic/Bird” represents another workmanlike attempt to colonize a small patch of Broadway for the underserved straight male constituency, which now has something to drag wives and girlfriends to in exchange for attendance at, say, “Wicked.”
Before digital brickbats come flying my way, I should acknowledge that there are plenty of women and gay men with a passion for basketball too (and no doubt plenty of straight men who’ve happily made return visits to “Wicked”).
In any case, while none who followed the concurrent N.B.A. careers of Mr. Bird and Mr. Johnson are likely to learn anything revelatory in “Magic/Bird,” they may be content to relive the highlights reel presented here, which is amplified by scenes that attempt to portray the human side of the superhuman athletes.
But as depicted by Mr. Simonson, and portrayed by Kevin Daniels (Mr. Johnson) and Tug Coker (Mr. Bird), the dual heroes never emerge as nuanced or magnetic stage figures, and the celebrated rivalry between them — which revived the flagging fortunes of the N.B.A. in the 1980s — stirs little more excitement, since their relationship off the court was one of mutual respect but minimal interaction, and hardly intimate friendship. (Although hoops occasionally descend from above, and a few balls are thrown, only video clips give us a sense of the players’ particular skills.)
Admittedly Mr. Simonson faced a particular challenge in manufacturing excitement from the clipped mutterings of the ambitious but reserved Mr. Bird, the self-described “hick from French Lick,” a small town in southern Indiana, who is presented here as laconic to the point of catatonic.
Mr. Coker’s dour expression and minimalist responses to attempts by coaches and others to draw him out are amusing at first, but men of few words are not what appealing drama is generally made of. (Mr. Coker is also saddled with a wig that makes him look like Frankenstein’s monster with a bad dye job.)
Mr. Johnson was the more outgoing figure, and his dramatic (albeit temporary) retirement from basketball in 1991, when he announced that he had contracted H.I.V., provides a dramatic frame for “Magic/Bird.” The play opens with this arresting moment in both the history of professional sports and of the AIDS epidemic, and includes video clips from the news conference during which a gallant and charming Mr. Johnson made the announcement, confirming rumors that had been whipping through the sports and media worlds.
The play then flashes back through the years of the players’ competitive careers, beginning when Mr. Johnson’s Michigan State team took the college championship over Mr. Bird’s Indiana State. Recruited by Red Auerbach (Peter Scolari), the determined general manager of the dormant Boston Celtics, Mr. Bird soon becomes a sensation, and the Celtics begin making regular appearances in the N.B.A. playoffs.
Their chief rivals are the Los Angeles Lakers, where Mr. Johnson is brought aboard to join a lineup already including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Mr. Johnson’s flashy style and terrific skills turn him into both a star player and a media darling, and the Celtics and the Lakers meet in a series of N.B.A. championship matchups that Mr. Simonson uses to juice the drama.
There’s not much juice to be found off the court, it seems. Mr. Bird, a dogged competitor, keeps to himself and rebuffs Mr. Johnson’s attempts at collegial camaraderie on the few occasions they meet, at least until they are courted by Converse to shoot a sneaker commercial together. The negotiations over this commercial, and the moderate bonding over similarities in their histories that takes place during the filming, must perforce act as the emotional crux of the story.
It’s a pretty unimpressive one, despite the appealing presence of Deirdre O’Connell as Mr. Bird’s mother, hovering over them as she prepares lunch, heaping praise on Mr. Johnson as her mortified son hangs his head. Then it’s back to respectful distance, as their rivalry begins to falter when Mr. Bird begins having back problems and the specter of Mr. Johnson’s discovery of his H.I.V. status looms.
Mr. Daniels doesn’t have Mr. Johnson’s megawatt smile, but he exudes an easygoing warmth that matches up with the player we see in frequent video images projected on the back of David Korins’s court-theme set. Mr. Coker gives a dutifully tight-lipped, emotionally opaque performance as Mr. Bird. Ms. O’Donnell and Mr. Scolari are excellent playing several supporting roles. (Mr. Scolari and Francois Battiste are the combatants in that scene at the sports bar.)
Mr. Simonson drew on interviews with both Mr. Johnson and Mr. Bird in writing the play, and it seems possible that their participation may have hampered a more probing approach to the characters. Then again, perhaps they are as likable and fundamentally colorless as they are presented here.
Still, the HBO documentary “Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals” provided a more in-depth and emotionally resonant take on their relationship. (The thorny question of how race influenced the coverage of their careers is mentioned only tangentially, for instance, in the play.)
But the primary obstacle in writing about sports stars for the theater is that the achievements that make them inspiring figures are almost always the feats they performed on the court or the field. Those, of course, can probably never be dramatized in any truly engaging manner onstage.
Let's start by giving credit to the producers of "Magic/Bird," which opened Wednesday at the Longacre, for a brave attempt at Broadway alchemy, seeking at least temporarily to turn sports fans into theater fans -- and vice versa.
It began 18 months ago with "Lombardi," about the late Green Bay Packers coach, a modest business and critical success that starred Lindenhurst's own Dan Lauria, ran for 244 performances and earned a Tony nomination for Judith Light.
Now, Tony Ponturo and Fran Kirmser are back with another 90-minute, one-act play that has advantages and disadvantages over its predecessor. The good news includes engaging production touches featuring video of the real Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, stars of the Los Angeles Lakers-Boston Celtics rivalry of the 1980s. It also helps that Johnson and Bird were available to aid producers, actors and playwright in getting details right.
But the fact that Johnson and Bird are very much with us and that their stories are relatively recent -- the play begins with the final of the 1979 NCAA Tournament -- brings creative challenges.
Most of Lauria's audience only knew Lombardi from archival footage; he died in 1970. Most of the audience for "Magic/Bird" knows the principals well. In fact, both men were scheduled to be sitting in it Wednesday.
Thus, small flaws stand out, such as Kevin Daniels' voice being too deep to capture Johnson's familiar, high-pitched, almost singsong tone.
And avid fans over 40 likely will not learn much new about the complex -- and well-documented -- relationship between seeming opposites in everything from personality to background to race.
So, is "Magic/Bird" great theater? No, but given inherent limitations, the actors and writer Eric Simonson have done as well as they could have and crafted a show worth seeing. Tug Coker is particularly memorable as the laconic Bird, getting laughs with one-word deadpans. He also seems quite credible as a basketball player.
The other actors play multiple roles, highlighted by Francois Battiste's bizarre take on sportscaster Bryant Gumbel -- who is unlikely to be as amused as the audience was -- and Peter Scolari as Celtics president Red Auerbach.
As in "Lombardi," Simonson employs characters based on journalists for expository purposes, with a lighter touch this time.
By the end, after the 1992 Olympics, the show gets us where we need to be: understanding and appreciating one of sports' more enduring and unusual friendships.
The same folks who pulled "Lombardi" out of a hat are trying for another made-to-order sports entertainment, this time about the fierce rivalry and eventual friendship of NBA greats Magic Johnson of the L.A. Lakers and Larry Bird of the Boston Celtics. Lacking an actual basketball game on an actual basketball court, Eric Simonson's "Magic/Bird" has zip drama. But techno-savvy designers make terrific use of classic NBA footage, and the actors playing Magic and Bird are cute enough to carry it off. Basketball fans are the obvious target aud, but their dates should have a good time, too.
Come to think of it, basketball mothers might be the best audience for this sweet show, because Magic (Kevin Daniels) and Bird (Tug Coker) are the kind of good boys every mother dreams about.
The one crucial scene in the show is actually initiated by Larry Bird's mother Georgia
(Deirdre O'Connell), who insists that the two "boys" have lunch at the family farm in French Lick, Indiana, where they're filming their famously clunky commercial for Converse sneakers. (The film clip is priceless.) Although the rival stars can't stand the sight of one another, after sharing that home-cooked meal at Mrs. Bird's cozy kitchen table they become fast friends for life.
The forging of that remarkable friendship -- which survived, as lesser friendships did not, Magic's life-changing battle with H.I.V. -- is the play's dramatic center and the source of its appeal. Anyone expecting deep thought on matters such as Magic's scandalous sexual adventures or the curiously pale complexion of the Celtics are due for disappointment.
What auds really want to see, anyway, are the dazzling contests between these two guys on the basketball court.
Thomas Kail can't turn a Broadway stage into a basketball court any more than he could conjure up a football field when he directed Simonson's previous sports bio-drama, "Lombardi." But the helmer shows far more ingenuity here in staging those unstageable scenes.
At the top of the show, the two stars and four backup thesps (troopers who play more than 20 roles among them) come running onto the stage "court" costumed (by Paul Tazewell) in full warm-up uniform and start playing up to the crowd. Thanks to the design team of David Korins (sets), Howell Binkley (lighting), and Nevin Steinberg (sound), the arena lights up, the organ kicks in, the crowd roars, and basketballs fly. But the technical astuteness of the production comes across most vividly in media designer Jeff Sugg's flashy use of classic NBA game footage, shrewdly edited and shown in mile-high projections.
As frontman for the recent eye-popping sale of the Los Angeles Dodgers, the real Magic Johnson has been all over the media lately, his legendary charm and charisma undimmed. Which could have put his stage persona at something of a disadvantage. But Kevin Daniels wasn't cast just because he's tall, and his perf nicely captures what Bird's mother calls Magic's "personality," as well as the disingenuous delight that he took in his well-earned fame and fortune.
Scribe's portrayal of Larry Bird's laconic Midwestern reserve comes awfully close to caricature. But that go-away look in his eye and those don't-bother-me answers to loaded questions really are pretty funny, coming from a guy in such a hot-blooded profession. With the help of a Goldilocks wig and a well-tuned sense of humor, Tug Coker looks a lot like the man himself, while managing some good moves on and off the court.
Deirdre O'Connell brings an endearing quality to Georgia Bird, and she does a dead-on Boston accent in the small but pithy part of Shelly, the caustic bartender in a rowdy working-class bar where the only language spoken is sports. Among other multiple role players, Peter Scolari has his hands full doubling as the team managers of both the Celtics and the Lakers. Robert Manning, Jr., brings loose-limbed grace and a bit of gravitas to ballplayers like Michael Cooper. But Francois Battiste has the most challenging role to play, as a Lakers fan who dares to go into a Boston bar and announce that "the Celtics suck."