BWW Houston Review: Clutch Play SMALL BALL Delivers for Catastrophic Theatre
At intermission (theatrical half-time), Daryl Morey approached some of the Rockets players in the audience and laughingly asked, “Is this the weirdest thing you’ve ever seen?” Perhaps it is, but SMALL BALL is also one of the most innovative, engaging and creative works produced in recent years.
It takes a lot of balls to step out of your lane. But for Morey, best known as the General Manager of the Houston Rockets, commissioning and associate producing SMALL BALL wasn’t that big of a leap. He has loved theatre throughout his life (who knew?!) and has invested in and produced numerous productions, including GODSPELL, SIDE SHOW, and DISASTER!
But a basketball musical? How on earth? Catastrophic Theatre co-founder and artistic director Jason Nodler learned that Morey was a big fan of the theatrical genre, and, as one does, sent him a message on Facebook suggesting they team up. They soon enlisted talented playwright Mickle Maher to write the book and lyrics, and original music from Merel van Dijk and Anthony Barilla.
In a bid for international recognition, the teeny-tiny island nation of Lilliput, best known from Jonathan Swift’s GULLIVER’S TRAVELS, has decided to join an international basketball league, and sinks the whole of the kingdom’s coffers into building a court and signing Michael Jordan (not the Michael Jordan, but a point-guard with the same name as the NBA All-Star,) to its team the Lilliput Existers.
Jordan joins the team, dejected and depressed, most recently having bottomed out of Iceland’s very real Domino’s Pizza League. At over six-feet tall, he’s presented by a very real and very strange problem: everything in Lilliput is super small, including his six-inch teammates. He has two choices: pass a regulation sized ball, potentially killing his team and Lilliputians in the stands, or remain still, and lose every game. Post-game press conferences featuring full-sized reporters are particularly painful, because “first you lose, then they make you talk about losing.”
Lilliput is a very strange place; in addition to everything and everyone being super small (the country cleared a forest building Jordan a tiny table and chair), the nascent democracy doesn’t have a concept of the number five (resulting in four players on the team), and are frequently forced to battle “giant” rats to protect themselves.
Compelling an audience to believe that most of the players are a mere six-inches tall, is no easy feat. Yet the uber-talented co-directing team of Nodler and Tamarie Copper expertly differentiate the size difference through elegant direction and clever effects. The stage is divided in half, with Jordan on one side, and his teammates on the other, acting away from each other, toward the walls of the theatre. The simple and effective direction totally suspends the audience’s disbelief. When Jordan blows vape smoke onto his teammates, a giant cloud erupts from the other side of the stage. He pounds his fist on his table, and the Lilliputians experience a seismic quake. These thoughtful and deeply creative details allow the audience to experience the characters as they’re meant to be seen: incredibly small and giant-sized.
As the disgruntled and melancholy Michael Jordan, Orlanders Tao Jones gives a spectacular performance, perfectly balancing his obvious contempt at the absurdity of his gargantuan stature and situation, with his underlying desire to find a real home. His voice is deep and smooth, beautiful to behold, and befitting of his character.
Rodrick Randall shines as the President-Elect, Emperor and King of Lilliput, also known as Coach Phil Jackson (not the Phil Jackson). His desire to uplift his country and lack of coaching skill is as uproarious as his anti-number five world-view. Much like his namesake, he eschews analytics and leads with his heart, in direct opposition of logic and his wife Mrs. Horton, the Empress and Queen of Lilliput who also happens to be the Exister’s Director of Analytics.
Named after Dr. Seuss‘ HORTON HEARS A WHO!, actress Angela Pinina, as Mrs. Horton, embodies the sincerity, kindness and purposefulness of the beloved childhood elephant, who famously taught readers that “a person’s a person, no matter how small.” This is the underlying theme of the production – the big takeaway – buried beneath complex layers of absurdist comedy. Pinina’s voice is searing, pure and steady. She is magical to watch.
Julia Krohn plays Lilli, Coach Phil Jackson and Mrs. Horton’s daughter and Princess of Lilliput (her namesake). As one of the members of the four-person basketball team, Lilly wrestles with her seemingly unrequited crush on Michael Jordan, and her frustration that he won’t pass her (or anyone else) the ball. Lilly and Jordan are worlds apart in size, but similar in their desire to be seen and to find a place in the world; despite being on opposite sides of the stage, you can feel their chemistry crackle. Like the rest of the players, Krohn is perfectly cast and incredibly talented. Best of all, and the highest compliment I can bestow, is that she reminded me of Amy Sedaris with her masterfully funny physical comedy and riotous portrayal.
Two more players makeup the team: Candice D’Meza as Bird and Greg Cote as Magic (once again, not the real Bird, not the real Magic). Cote’s Magic is a dimwitted and kind follower-type, never once questioning the absurdity of his situation or directions, nor espousing an original thought. Cote plays the role masterfully, never once dropping character, always looking dazed and confused, while bringing the funny. D’Meza, as his partner Bird, is as enthusiastic as Magic is simple. She is expressive and emotive to the hilt. It’s hard to take your eyes off of her, and together, they form an incredible slapstick-style comedic team, rich with sincerity and soul.
Seán Patrick Judge as Assistant Coach Pippen (as you’ve come to expect by now, not the Pippen), completely steals the show. His portrayal of a bored-by-basketball neophobe is both hysterical and chilling. Judge was gifted an incredible character, and plays it to the nines (a number that does exist in Lilliput) with brash, bratty wit, deep cynicism, unending sarcasm and the haughtiest of tones, not to mention his liberal use of a bow and poison-tipped arrows. He is pure fun, impossible not to love, and even among a crew of incredible talent, a standout.
Unobtrusively seated inside of the audience, armed with microphones and dry wit, are Jeff Miller and the aforementioned Cooper, playing international television sports reporters. Intentionally staged as disembodied voices, their poignant, piercing and incredibly intrusive questions guide SMALL BALL forward. They are the voice of the audience, and often that of reason, asking delightfully inappropriate questions, and commenting on the absurd characters with indelicate, farcical side-talk. Let’s be honest here: television viewing would be greatly improved (and so much more fun) with running commentary from this otherworldly talented team.
Dijk and Barilla’s original score is as creative as it is fresh. Backed by a seldom-seen orchestra tucked behind a darkly-lit scrim, the musical underscoring and songs hit all the right notes. Coupled with stunning lyrics from Maher, the songs are evocative, passionate, funny, and honest. What more can I say? SMALL BALL is a musical masterpiece.
There’s a lot going on here. But instead of getting lost in the layers, I reveled in them; a testament to co-director Nodler and Cooper’s creativity, genius words from Maher, and the ultimate assist from Daryl Morey.
Gilbert & Sullivan famously wrote, “Things are seldom what they seem.” This is the case with SMALL BALL. Couched in a rip-roarious comedy about basketball, deep within the zany, fanciful and fun story, are relatable thematic messages of isolation, adaptation, and the desire for acceptance. This show is exactly why the Catastrophic Theatre is so important to Houston’s artistic landscape. It’s enthralling, inventive and utterly charming productions always contain a greater truth. I didn’t know how much I needed a basketball musical until I saw SMALL BALL. And from one human to another, you need it, too.
The Catastrophic Theatre’s SMALL BALL runs through May 13, 2018. Performances are held on Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2:30 p.m at MATCH, 3400 Main Street. All tickets are pay-what-you-can; suggested ticket price $40. For more information, please call 713-522-2723, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit catastrophictheatre.com.