May 2, 2012

Tony Love...But Not for Magic/Bird

The Tony nominators spread around their love this year.  When the nominations were announced yesterday, 30 of the 37 eligible shows were named in at least one category. And some of the face-offs—the little chamber musical Once against the big Disney song-and-dance show Newsies; four-time winner Audra McDonald vs. four-time bridesmaid Kelli O’Hara vs. Once’s bright-eyed newcomer Cristin Milioti; campy humor god Douglas Carter Beane taking on campy humor god Harvey Feirstein—have the potential to be showdowns that are as exciting for us theater geeks as the ones between the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox almost always are for sports fanatics. 

But there still wasn’t enough love to go around for everybody and closing notices have already gone up for two of the shows left out in the cold, including Theresa Rebeck’s Seminar, which will shut down on Sunday, and Magic/Bird which will give its final performance on May 12 and which my theatergoing buddy Bill and I only got around to seeing last night.  

To be honest, we’d put it off because we knew the show, produced by the same folks who did last year’s short-lived football show Lombardi, is about the rivalry and unlikely friendship between the basketball stars Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Larry Bird and neither of us is really that into hoops.

But sometimes having low expectations can be a blessing because, as it turned out, we didn’t have nearly as bad a time as we thought we would. Thomas Kail, who helmed both Lombardi and In the Heights, has put together a sprightly production with some nice basketball choreography and some great video clips from the players’ heyday back in the ‘80s that were fun to see even for a basketball no-nothing like me.

And he’s got an engaging cast lead by Kevin Daniels and Tug Coker as the genial stand-ins for the title characters (click here to read about them). But the show’s true MVPs are the supporting cast members who take on multiple roles. 

Peter Scolari is a hoot even if he does have a little problem making each of the major coaches in the stars’ lives truly distinctive. Francois Battiste is totally winning even if he does makes gratuitous fun of newscaster Bryant Gumbel who interviewed the players over the years.  Meanwhile, Deirdre O’Connell—always a favorite of mineis just perfect, particularly in the role of Bird’s mom.  

In fact, the only thing wrong with the show is that it simply has no story to tell.  Instead it just rolls along just one scene following after another for 90 minutes, with very little tension along the way, although playwright Eric Simonson tries to create some by opening with Johnson’s 1991 announcement that he was retiring from basketball because he had contracted the HIV virus. 

But that doesn’t really go anywhere because we know that Johnson has survived and thrived as an AIDS activist and businessman, having just this year become co-owner of the L.A. Dodgers  

Some critics have suggested that Magic/Bird might have had more bite if it hadn’t had the cooperation of its subjects, who reportedly not only shared their remembrances with Simonson but showed up at some rehearsals and even made a joint appearance on “Letterman” to hawk the show (click to here read how Simonson put the show together).

But none of that bothered the man sitting behind Bill and me who whooped with delight as he recognized each key moment in the players’ bio. Alas, for Magic/Bird, there weren’t enough others like him showing up at the Longacre Theatre—or on the Tony nominating committee

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