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.”