Magic/Bird Got Hops

 

Rivalries between humans go back as far as Cain and Able.  Since the days of ancient Greece, sporting events have been the best venue to showcase the dedication, passion and majesty of competition.  Throughout the 20th century myriad genres of sports featured great rivalries – Ali and Frazier, New York Yankees and Boston Red Socks and Joe Louis and Max Schmeling.  But no sporting rivalry produced more pageantry than the skirmishes between Larry Bird and Earvin “Magic” Johnson.

The grudge match between Magic and Bird began in 1979 when Johnson and Michigan State beat Bird and Indiana State in the NCAA finals.  Their rivalry progressed to the pros as both were drafted to the NBA, Magic for the Los Angeles Lakers and Bird for the Boston Celtics.  The competition between the Celtics and Lakers did not start with Magic and Bird, these teams have had an adversarial history that predated both Hall of Famers entrance to the league, but with Magic and Bird the rivalry rose to mythical proportions.   Between 1984 and 1987, they went head to head in the finals four times with the Lakers winning the championship three times.    Their contrasting playing styles and obvious difference in skin color made great media fodder, helping to fuel the antagonistic relationship.  It also helped to resurrect a seriously ailing NBA.  Individually, their desire to dominate each other assisted them in being better players. 

In 2010, the production team of Fran Kirmser and Tony Ponturo brought the NFL center stage when they opened Lombardi at the Circle in the Square Theatre and scored a touchdown.  This spring they traded in the gridiron for the hardwood court of the NBA; Magic/Bird, their latest stage production, opened at the Longacre Theatre on April 11.  Magic/Bird is a contemporary retelling of an epic rivalry and the unlikely friendship that was forged from it.

The play opens in 1991 with Magic informing the world via press conference that he is retiring from the NBA due to the discovery that he had contracted HIV and follows Bird’s reaction.  The audience is then transported back, being introduced to Magic and Bird as collegiate players during the championship game that spawned their rivalry.  It then recounts their transition to the pros as well as their individual rise as stars of the NBA.  The production also depicts how their rivalry affected the fans as well as black/white relations during that time and the media’s role in exacerbating it.  Then suddenly in 1984, while most of the country was choosing sides, Magic and Bird were shooting a commercial for Converse.  While doing so they discovered commonalities within each other and forged the foundation that would develop into a long-lasting friendship.  The play ends coming full circle as Magic comes to terms with his announcement to the media and Bird contemplates retirement.  The two giants would make one last stand together playing for the U.S. Men’s Basketball Team during the Barcelona Olympics in what would be dubbed as the first Dream Team.

Playwright Eric Simonson penned an interesting narrative.  The play moves with the speed of a fast break; the energy is constant and never waivers.  These two men transcended their sport, eventually ascending to the immortal status of titans.  Sure, initially people will fill the seats because they were fans of either Magic or Bird and recall how they innervated the NBA.  But patrons will soon find as I did that what lies beneath this tale of basketball and fierce competition is a genuine human interest story of two men that were able to find the humanity within each other despite differences in style, background and race.  Like Lombardi, Magic/Bird won’t just appeal to sports fans but to anyone that enjoys an emotive drama.  Whether one knows what a power forward does or not is irrelevant, you will still leave the theater feeling as if you have learned more about men behind the legend.  In my book Magic/Bird scores a triple-double!

Part of my fondness for Magic/Bird is the innovative multimedia staging of the play.  Various excerpts of press conferences and games are intertwined with the action happening on stage.  The actors, with the exception of those portraying Magic and Bird, play multiple characters, which I found extremely entertaining.  I also appreciated the role call of the actors at the beginning of the play.  Kevin Daniels recreates the show time pizzazz of Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Tug Coker makes his Broadway debut in the role of the ever so serious Larry Bird.  Peter Scolari triumphs as Pat Riley, Red Auerbach, Jerry Buss and Bob Woolf.  Deirdre O’Connell is a comedic delight as Dinah Bird, Patricia Moore, bar owner Shelly and Georgia Bird.  Robert Ray Manning Jr. and Francois Battiste complete the cast.   All of them are MVPs.

During this time of year, the NBA kicks into high gear as the most dominate teams secure their place in the playoffs hoping to make it through to the finals.  Broadway in springtime shares the same feverish anticipation as the NBA, new shows open either proving themselves worthy or unworthy of a Tony nomination.   Whether or not Magic/Bird will make it to Broadway’s version of the finals is unclear, but I do commend this production for attempting to push the boundaries of American theater.

Photos courtesy of Broadway.com

A Celebration of Chinglish

Life is filled with episodes of hilarious miscommunication, none of which are more comical than those that occur in the boardroom and bedroom.  Unfortunately when these real life scenarios transpire, the people involved do not have the brilliance of playwright David Henry Hwang to create side-splitting prose and provide subtitles for what is actually going on.  Fortunately for theatergoers, Hwang did exactly that with Chinglish – the best comedy to hit Broadway in an extremely long time. 

Chinglish explores the idea of being lost in translation through the eyes of businessman Daniel Cavanaugh, a ne’er do well entrepreneur running his family’s flailing signage company (and did I mentioned he worked for Enron).  He travels to a modest province in China with the hopes of acquiring a few contracts that would significantly revive his business and life.  But he soon learns that it is not only the language of Chinglish that is convoluted.  Chinglish commonly refers to mash-up of spoken and written English language that is interpreted from Chinese, often times very badly.  It is best exemplified in signs that grossly misconstrue Chinese symbols with English transcription.  During the course of his stay, Daniel realizes that like Chinglish, one thing often times means something else when it comes to navigating business and love in China.  But alls well that ends well, through a series of missteps Daniel learns about himself as well as how to maintain relationships, both professionally and personally.

Daniel’s initial journey in China is a comedy of errors, but this play is a comedy of triumphs!  Chinglish is spectacular – it is innovative, proactive, sophisticated and extremely entertaining.  The set design is as titillating as the play itself.  Reminiscent of a Rubik’s Cube, the set is an ever-changing moving background, constantly folding out of itself, creating awesome synchronicity with the events happening on stage.  The actors, the majority of whom are making their debut on the Great White Way, have the serendipitous fortune of using the wonderful script of David Hwang as a vehicle to introduce themselves to a Broadway stage.   Gary Wilmes, who plays Daniel Cavanaugh, excels at displaying American arrogance and naiveté when dealing with individuals from different cultures.  Jennifer Lim, who plays Xi Yan, is captivating; even when she is speaking in Chinese the audience will have a hard time looking away.  The most riotous lines are delivered by Stephen Pucci and Larry Lei Zhang who portray Peter Timms, the British teacher trying to pass as a consultant, and Minister Cai Guoliang, the quirky politician who is in charge of approving Cavanaugh’s proposal.

Although Chinglish is about miscommunication, it is right on time.   This play is primed for this millennium.  It transcends the themes explored on stage and becomes a microcosm for the current state of affairs between the US and China – two entities desperately trying to figure the other out, each step toward each other taken with great trepidation.  When discussing her initial reaction to the concept of Chinglish, director Leigh Silverman states, “It sounded like the most relevant, important play.”  David Henry Hwang describes the system of Chinglish to be a phenomenon; well I say Chinglish the play is a phenomenon also.  During a recent blogger meet and greet with Silverman and Hwang courtesy of Broadway’s Best Shows, Hwang admits, “The first time we had it read it was a lot of laughter and I realized that I written a comedy.”  And through laughter, the audience discovers that human nature is the same, no matter which continent one hails from.   Do not “Slip down and fall carefully,” do not gamble on missing this show, run to the Longacre Theatre and get tickets for this play.  Chinglish is a winner.  I smell another Tony win on the horizon for David Hwang.

 

Photos: Michael McCabe

Video courtesy of Broadway’s Best Shows