HOUSTONIA PREVIEW: A Basketball Musical? Why Not, Says Catastrophic Theatre

By Chris Gray 3/28/2018

THE FIRST THING YOU SHOULD KNOW about Catastrophic Theatre’s Small Ballis that the edgy Houston troupe once held a curtain for 90 minutes so that everyone—actors, crew, audience members—could watch a Rockets playoff game. The second is that the creative team behind this so-called “basketball musical” includes none other than the local NBA franchise’s general manager, Daryl Morey.

Long story short: The Catastrophic principals’ B-ball obsession dates back to the ’90s, when they were making theater as their previous incarnation, Infernal Bridegroom Productions, and the Rockets won back-to-back championships. The GM, who loves musical theater, especially operettas, admits that thespian folk and sports fans are a “Venn diagram that doesn’t overlap much,” so perhaps it’s no surprise that Morey and the theater have found each other. Catastrophic co-founder/artistic director Jason Nodler invited the GM to join the theater’s board in 2013, and he accepted.

Small Ball, co-directed by Nodler and his Catastrophic co-founder Tamarie Cooper, grew out of the GM and Nodler’s conversations about making a “high-level,” basketball-inspired musical, Morey remembers. The production took shape across multi-city conference calls—between the two men, plus composers Merel van Dijk and Tony Barilla (“Merel & Tony”) and playwright/company favorite Mickle Maher—over a period of more than two years.

Set many decades after Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Small Ball follows a journeyman NBA castoff, the depressed Michael Jordan—not that Michael Jordan—who is recruited by Lilliput’s king/head coach to boost the island nation’s international basketball profile. Also in the mix are the king’s star point-guard daughter; an Iago-like assistant coach named Pippin; giant rats who wash ashore from the media boat; and the Dr. Seuss–reading queen, the team’s Director of Analytics. Yes, there’s a lot going on here.

“I often think of Mickle’s work as a magical onion,” says Nodler, waxing literary himself. “As you peel it, more and more things come true, and at the end the onion has reconstituted itself as a whole pomegranate.”

Clever special effects account for the considerable size differences of the characters in the show, which is told through a series of postgame press conferences. Morey helped the creators punch up the basketball lingo and post-game patter, issuing credentials so they could sit in on the real thing for inspiration.

The show, by the way, is Maher’s first musical. “I was looking for a rhythm in the dialogue that would always feel just one breath shy of singing,” says the Chicago-based playwright. To go with that, Merel & Tony have created a score that evokes Swift-era composers like Henry Purcell while capturing Small Ball’s heavy mood swings. “It combines certain existential sadness,” Barilla says, “with several different kinds of humor.”

Small Ball. Apr 6–May 13. Pay what you can (suggested $40). MATCH, 3400 Main St. 713-521-4533.