PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Magic/Bird, a Tall Story on Broadway

By Harry Haun
12 Apr 2012

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The opening-night party that followed was a block away at the Edison Ballroom, the same locale as the Lombardi bash. The press line formed in an anteroom on the second floor where, individually, the cast floated in, high from the night's reception. Kevin Daniels, for all practical purposes, and Tug Coker are making their Broadway bows in the title roles. "I understudied in Twelfth Night at Lincoln Center like '98 so I feel like after 14 years you get a re-do, right? You just start over," Daniels reasoned (reasonably). "It feels like my Broadway debut. I was backstage tonight, and we've got all these congratulation notes from all the other shows on Broadway. I'd never seen that before. People signing 'Your Friends From Clybourne Park' and 'Friends of Seminar.' It was so great to see such an outpouring of love and realize that I was a part of this great community." (And he didn't even know Jeremy Shamos and some of the other actors in Clybourne Park, opening next week directly across the street, gleefully drank in the red-carpet arrivals from their balconies above the Walter Kerr marquee.)

The relationship that reluctantly evolves between the gregarious Magic Johnson and the parsimonious Larry Bird was not easily arrived at in the first place and not easily re-created in the second. "We rehearsed it quite a bit because we realized that that was going to be the heart of the story — of how these men turned. What was the turning point in their relationship? So finally we found out what we could do to capture these two giants in a room. If you were a fly on the wall, what would that be? It's been great. Every day we go out, we try to explore and find something new.

"Thomas, our director, has done an amazing job of catching this beautiful piece that's more than a show about two athletes or a show about sports. There's this element in it you can't describe to someone till they see the show. They're, like, 'Oh, it's about so much more than that.' It's been really wonderful to be a part of that."

Two startling things about Coker: Unlike Bird, he's not a blond, and he talks fast — in whole sentences. "Part of the thing about Larry is he focuses all of his energies inward so he really internalizes things," the actor noted. "You have to play with a lot of focus and a lot of concentration because there's so much listening on stage. That was a really good challenge for me to be there. You see other people getting laughs, being funny and gregarious and outgoing — and you know, for Larry to work, you have to go the other way because he focuses and internalizes like a laser.

Larry Bird
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

"It's the first time that I've ever worn a wig in a show — Chuck LaPointe did them, he's amazing — I have two wigs in the show, and it was fun. There were a lot of fast quick-changes with the wigs so it was really a treat to learn how to do that."

Deirdre O'Connell, the brilliant Off-Broadway actress (Circle Mirror Transformation for one), was last seen on Broadway in the 1986 Lincoln Center production of The Front Page where, as Mollie Molloy, she leaps out of a window and was never seen on Broadway again — until now when she surfaces to field all the female roles in Magic/Bird. This chore also requires two wigs, she said: "At one point I switch wigs in 30 seconds, then I switch back again in 30 seconds in the next scene so I need two wigs. You can't do that with real hair."

The move "uptown" agrees with her. "Broadway feels great. Somebody said to me that one of the things about Broadway is that the people who go to Broadway shows really want to be there and they really want it to be a great time because they paid a lot of money to sit there. There really is a quality of audiences that are so excited to be there and so want this thing to be as fulfilling as they were hoping it was. It's a great vibe in the room. It's very similar to being Off-Broadway in most ways."

One of her roles is in the elusive "turning point" of the play — as Bird's mom, who wins Magic over in one massive, motherly sweep. "It's a sweet, beautiful scene, and it's very funny to have those three people in a room together."

Even funnier are the tavern scenes she shares with Francois Battiste and Peter Scolari, who play rival Magic/Birds on a fan level. "That's the whole Irish side of my family," insisted Scolari. "Sure, I have a relative who sat in those bars 30-40 years ago. Those New England accents I've heard since I was a little boy, so to be able to bring that — not just the regional dialect but the personal music — the culture of those personalities who obsess about sports the way we might obsess about theatre. That's rich — rich and vibrant stuff."

All told, he said, "I play four and a half characters. I play very briefly, for a page or two, Larry Bird's sports agent who was an attorney and then became Agent to the Stars eventually — Bob Woolf. but really I play four characters, and I fool around with Bob Woolf for a fifth character for a page. I play Pat Riley. Have you seen Coach Riley tonight? I'm only a couple of feet shorter than he is. What can you do? I mean, walk tall? I gotta tell ya, this is a fun ride because there is no time in the course of the play to feel out how it's going with this character because you're playing someone else. Then I come offstage and I'm changing and I'm going to play somebody else. It's very challenging and every exciting. Boy, talk about keeping you on your feet! I haven't needed a cup of coffee since I started this thing."

Battiste's big bit is a high-pitched Bryant Gumble. So far, he hasn't heard directly from the TV icon. "We've got somebody trying to hook something up. I haven't heard anything from him yet, but his wife is on the board of one of the companies who came to see it, and she loved it."

Magic Johnson
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Rating their share of glad hands were Magic's wife, Cookie, and son, CJ, the son sporting a beautiful diamond-encrusted Chanel logo pin in place of a neck tie.

Andrew D. Bernstein, who took the iconic photo of the real Larry Bird and Magic Johnson that adorns the show's Playbill cover, posed with the sister who lights up his life, actress/singer Didi Conn Producer-actress Tamara Tunie, with her husband, cabaret crooner Gregory Generet, was the picture of post-show contentment: "Eric [Simonson] took something that is kind of epic and condensed it into something theatrical and beautiful. I think it was very amazing, very exciting. I'm very proud to be aboard."

Dule Hill and Tracie Thoms, late of Stick Fly, were in attendance — she just barely: "I'm back from L.A. where I worked on a pilot. I loved it tonight. I'm friends with Kevin Daniels and Francois Battiste. I'm so proud of them. We went to school together at Juilliard. Francois was in the last Off-Broadway play I did, Ten Things To Do Before I Die, and my first play in New York was Up Against the Wind, and Kevin was in that. We're all a very tight-knit family at Juilliard, and we're all very excited to see the success of each other. I'm so happy to be here and support them and cheer them on. I just got off the plane from L.A. last night, so I'm stupefied, but there's no place I'd rather be than here to support them. I got no choice. My friends are on Broadway. I'm on a plane. That's it."

The lone member of the Lombardi support team was its inquiring reporter, Keith Nobbs, who has recently been upgraded to clerk for a new HBO movie. "It's called 'Mohammed Ali's Greatest Fight,' about the moment Mohammed Ali was drafted for the Vietnam War and he claimed status as a conscientious objector, and then the whole thing went to the Supreme Court. It's Christopher Plummer, Frank Langella, Harris Yulin, Bob Balaban and Ed Begley Jr. It's all about the inner workings of the 1971 Supreme Court."

Jeffrey Donovan, now in his sixth season of "Burn Notice," was a surprise guest. "I'm trying to get back into theatre, and this is my first step," he explained. I'm actually a producer on this. Tamara Tunie is a good friend of mine, and she called me and said I had a unique opportunity and she'd like to talk to me about it. She said, 'It's a play about Larry Bird and Magic Johnson.' I said, 'I'm in.'"

Sure enough, his Playbill bio ends with: "This is Mr. Donovan's first time as a Broadway producer. He is terrified."

Read more about the Broadway production of Magic/Bird in the Playbill Vault.

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