Slam Dunk! Magic/Bird Shoots High, Opening on Broadway April 11
By Kenneth Jones
Magic/Bird, Eric Simonson's highly theatrical drama about the college-to-Olympics rivalry and friendship of basketball heroes Earvin "Magic" Johnson and Larry Bird, opens at Broadway's Longacre Theatre April 11. Fresh faces Tug Coker and Kevin Daniels play household-names Bird and Johnson, respectively.
Previews began March 21. Bird and Johnson are expected to attend opening night.
Director Thomas Kail — who directed Simonson's sports-centric Lombardi, produced by the same niche of theatrical producers, Fran Kirmser and Tony Ponturo — enlivens the production with quick-changes, NBA highlights of famous basketball games, archival news footage, projected animation and more.
The action takes place on a slightly raised platform serving as a kind of court around which cast members occasionally view the action, from the sidelines, under the heat of arena lights (the lighting designer is Howell Binkley; David Korins is the scenic designer). The staging hints at basketball moves, but the production does not seek to recreate overt sports action. Magic/Bird is foremost a history play populated by reporters, everyday fans, coaches, players and the title Hall of Famers.
The complete cast includes Daniels (making his principal Broadway debut) as Los Angeles Lakers star Magic Johnson and Coker (making his Broadway debut, in a blond wig) as Boston Celtics star Larry Bird, plus Deirdre O'Connell, Peter Scolari, Rob Ray Manning, Jr. and Francois Battiste, playing multiple roles. The company also includes Anne-Marie Cusson, Anthony Holiday and Gregory Jones.
Kirmser and Ponturo, producers of the football-centered Lombardi on Broadway, are lead producers. The show has the participation of the National Basketball Association (and permission of Bird and Johnson). The producers also include W. Scott McGraw, John Mara, Jr., Tamara Tunie/Jeffrey Donovan and Friends of Magic/Bird.
During previews of the show, it was not uncommon to see fathers and young sons, some wearing basketball jerseys, sitting together and taking in the drama that reflected their shared passion for sports.
Kail told Playbill.com in the days leading up to opening night, "There have been many kids wearing the jerseys of their favorite players today — from Lebron to Chris Paul — walking into our theatre with their parents, who have brought their children to share the story of Magic and Bird — the heroes from their own childhood. Musicals often serve as family entertainment, while plays are generally just for the parents. I'm excited to see that Magic/Bird is being shared by the whole family."
Magic/Bird will welcome Hall of Famer "Magic" Johnson for a special talkback following an added 2 PM April 13 matinee. The discussion is the first in what will be a series of special nights throughout the run of the show. On April 19 a host of retired NBA stars will be on hand for "Legends of Basketball Night," and the United States Olympic Committee will host a special "Olympic Athlete Night" April 17. Other special events will be announced at a later time.
The Magic/Bird creative team also includes Paul Tazewell (costumes), Nevin Steinberg (sound) and Jeff Sugg (projections). Hair/wig design is by Charles G. LaPointe, dialect coach is by Stephen Gabis, technical supervisor is David Benken, production stage manager is J. Philip Bassett.
O'Connell plays Georgia Bird/Shelly/Patricia Moore, Scolari plays Red Auerbach/Jerry Buss/Pat Riley, Manning Jr. plays Michael Cooper/Henry Alvarado/Frank, and Battiste plays Jon Lennox/Ron Baxter/Willy.
Here's how the producers bill Magic/Bird: "At the heart of one of the fiercest rivalries in sports history, two of the greatest basketball players of all-time battled for three championships, bragging rights, and the future of their sport in the 1980s. Johnson and Bird electrified the nation on the court, reinvigorated the NBA, and turned their rivalry into one of the greatest and most famous friendships in professional sports."
With a name to inspire sports fans, Coker, a 34-year-old, 6-feet-5-inch former NCAA college basketball player, has film and TV credits guesting on "Torchwood," "Hot in Cleveland," "CSI: Miami," "Community" and more, and appeared in A Midsummer Night's Dream at American Repertory Theatre in Boston. He is (naturally) a devoted Boston Celtics fan.
Daniels grew up in Houston and Irving, TX, and played high school basketball before becoming an actor. "I was 6-foot-5, I was black and I lived in Texas," he told Playbill.com, with a laugh. "It's in my blood."
Yes, he's a fan of the Los Angeles Lakers — Magic's old team.
Since landing the job, Daniels scoured "every bit of youtube footage" of Johnson, his games and his interviews, the actor said. Daniels is impressed with Johnson. "No matter what interview, he's always that same guy — relaxed and laid back, with a confidence," the actor said.
For more about Magic/Bird, visit www.magicbirdbroadway.com.
Curious about Eric Simonson's earlier Broadway play, Lombardi, about football coach Vince Lombardi? Visit the Lombardi Playbill Vault entry.
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