Friday, April 20, 2012

Magic/Bird: Lifetime Television for Basketball

Magic/Bird* has been brought to Broadway by the creative team behind Lombardi. Director Thomas Kail and writer Eric Simonson dramatize the rivalry and friendship between Magic Johnson and Larry Bird.  With a fantastic cast, Magic/Bird manages at times to be funny and touching but never really rises above the level of a TV biopic.  That said, I'd love to see any of these talented cast members in other plays in the future.

The show opens with the difficult call between Johnson and Bird when Johnson gets his HIV diagnosis and then moves back in time to see the men develop their friendship.  Using video projection of TV moments from their lives (including their Converse commercial which got cheers from the audience), and staged on a parquet floor, they talk, shoot hoops, and become a part of each others lives.  Focused more on the relationship of these two men, you won't hear about how Johnson became infected with HIV or much about his personal life.

As someone who cares very little for sports (but grew up with Celtics fans in my family), I came to Magic/Bird a bit reticent.  What I left with was a lovely portrait in friendship between these two men.  This is largely due to the terrific actors portraying them.  Kevin Daniels as Magic Johnson is all charisma and ease.  Tug Coker as Larry Bird is gangly awkwardness personified.  He speaks so little that everything he conveys about his character is through his body-language.  It's an impressive feat.  These two actors enriched the relatively thin material with their thoughtful performances and created a believable relationships between these two iconic men.

Each supporting cast member played a variety of characters and completed this strong ensemble. Without drifting into caricature, Peter Scolari physically embodied Red Auerbach and Pat Riley (and for the record, if anyone is wondering he has some very nice biceps!  He was always my favorite Bosom Buddy).  I would be remiss if I did not give credit to Deirdre O'Connell for her EXCELLENT Boston accent.  Beyond nailing the always difficult Boston accent, she was incredibly specific with each of the characters she played.  Whether she was Bird's mother, his wife or a Boston barkeep, she made each unique and dynamic.  My friend and I sat there wondering who is this actress and why have we not seen her before!  She's fantastic and now someone I am keeping an eye out for.  Francois Battiste should also get some recognition for his hilarious performance as Bryant Gumbel.  His Gumbel sounded a lot like Kermit the Frog.  It was funny every time he did it. 

But in the end, little happens in this play.  The arc of their careers/rivalry/friendship is necessarily dependent on the iconic TV footage which for me was over-used in this production.  Rather than work with the play, it seemed to remind me of how thin the play itself was and how necessary these clips were for moving the story ahead.

*I received a complementary ticket to the production.

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