Review: 'Magic/Bird' is a bromance brought to life

Associated Press
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This undated publicity image provided by Kirmser/Ponturo Group, LLC shows Tug Coker, as Larry Bird, left, and Kevin Daniels, as Earvin "Magic" Johnson, in a scene from "Magic/Bird," a new play opening on Broadway on Wednesday, April 10, 2012. (AP Photo/Kirmser/Ponturo Group, LLC, Joan Marcus)

NEW YORK (AP) — As the weather in New York warms and flowers begin to bloom, Broadway apparently has turned to bromance.

The on-court and off-court relationship between Los Angeles Lakers great Earvin "Magic" Johnson and Boston Celtics legend Larry Bird during the 1980s is the subject of an unlikely but sweet play by the folks who also mashed together theater and sport in "Lombardi."

"Magic/Bird," which opened Wednesday at The Longacre Theatre, reunites most of the "Lombardi" team, including director Thomas Kail and playwright Eric Simonson, who crafted his somewhat thin script from conversations with Johnson and Bird.

Like their play about legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi, the team behind "Magic/Bird" cleverly use old video footage of the two ballplayers — the National Basketball Association is a co-producer — without letting it become an ESPN special.

Simonson's script is best anyway when he's telling the private moments that cameras never caught: This is the story of Johnson and Bird as bitter rivals who grow to become friends. One thing they always had for each other is respect — in fact, we learn each one drove their rival to work harder, hit the gym one more time, practice free throws endlessly and add baby sky hooks to their arsenals.

But make no mistake: This is a kind of love story, albeit one between an outgoing African-American at ease in Hollywood and a taciturn white guy from rural Indiana who detested the limelight. They find out they both came from big families and value not being cramped; both also revere their tough fathers and value hard work on the court. By the time these two guys hug on stage for the first time only minutes from the end, the audience sighs.

Kevin Daniels plays Johnson with natural charisma and an ever-present smile. There's something puppyish about him; he has that endearing quality of trying to act tough, but also trying to sneak a peek at what his rival is up to.

Tug Coker as Bird sparks most of the night's biggest laughs just for his dry delivery of a few words. His Bird is laconic and stubborn, a guy who always has a ball in his hand and seems to prefer inspecting it to ever having to talk to anyone.

Kail deserves credit for pulling off a dynamic 1-hour-40-minute show composed of dozens of vignettes and marrying them to various projections, action sequences with real lay-ups and dribbling, dreamy sequences in which the action is stylized, plus four other actors who play almost 20 parts. It helps that Coker has real comfort with a basketball in his hand, unlike some of the cast at "Lysistrata Jones," the last Broadway show with basketball sequences.

Ball control is needed here. During the show, hoops swing down and then disappear, old footage is broadcast, dozens of outfits are put on, and parts of the stage actually spin thanks to David Korins' set design. When the cast come out for the curtain call, it's hard not to be surprised that there are only six people up there.

Both Johnson and Bird signed off on the script, so don't expect any dwelling on dark secrets. Credit goes for Johnson for admitting in one scene that he liked sleeping around and also for how scary it was when he admitted he had HIV. Bird must have revealed very little of what motivates him, but Coker has managed to fill the role with a quiet, heroic, ego-less stubbornness.

One of Simonson's neatest tricks is using a couple of barflies to help frame parts of the play. Some of Simonson's least successful are the attempts to make the story bigger than what it is. References to busing, racism and exploitation of athletes are picked up but then dribble away.

Also awkward is the transition from the raucous opening, in which each of the performers is introduced in sweats as if they were players before a big home game, and the first real scene in which Johnson is on the phone with Bird in a tense call to tell him he's got a deadly virus. But after that, the play progresses like a romantic comedy as we wait until these two rivals are brought together kicking and screaming.

The supporting cast certainly get a work out, too. Dierdre O'Connell plays Bird's mom (who plays a key role in getting the title characters together) as well as a bartender, Bird's wife and a reporter. She's terrific and soulful.

Peter Scolari seems to be having too much fun playing his slate of characters, which includes coaching giants Red Auerbach, Jerry Buss and Pat Riley. Francois Battiste, among his various roles, is a wickedly funny Bryant Gumbel, and Robert Manning Jr. is solid as teammates Norm Nixon and Michael Cooper.

With "Lombardi" and now "Magic/Bird," lead producers Fran Kirmser and Tony Ponturo have made their point: Interesting drama can be made from sports, and Broadway theaters can attract nontraditional audiences by presenting sports-related stories. Now it's just a question of how far they'll go. Can a hockey story be next?