Shea Serrano: Daryl Morey’s ‘Small Ball’ Musical Is Very Good and Very Weird
“I don’t understand that on any level. It feels deep. When you say it, I get excited, by something. By the mystery of it, I guess.” —Pippin, from the musical Small Ball
It feels at least a little bit odd to try to write about Small Ball, a basketball musical that opened this past weekend in Houston that was commissioned by Daryl Morey, the GM of the Houston Rockets. And I don’t mean “odd” as in, “It’s strange that the general manager of a professional basketball team in the National Basketball Association would do such a thing” —Morey has, for all of his years at the head of the Rockets’ basketball operations, been tied to the theater scene in Houston. I mean “odd” as in, “The show is really, very good and also really, very weird and I’m hesitant to tell you all of the details about it, for fear of ruining the surprise of it.”
And so, as a response, let me offer two things: a discussion about Small Ball if you have not seen it yet but are anticipating that you will, and a discussion about Small Ball if either (a) you have seen it already, or (b) you will not be seeing it because you live in a different city and, at least for the moment, it is only playing in Houston.
A Discussion About Small Ball If You Have Not Seen It Yet but Are Anticipating That You Will
Small Ball is a great deal of fun, and also surprisingly funny, and also, at times, surprisingly tender, which is remarkable given how weird the show actually ends up being. (It is not, as I had originally assumed, about the birth of small ball in the NBA.) There are nine people in it, and each of them is a delight, none more so than the star, Orlanders Tao Jones, who plays a character named Michael Jordan. For the entirety of the production, he teeters back and forth between being exceptionally introspective and exceptionally tragic, and there are for sure moments when he makes the aching in his chest feel real enough that it becomes your own. But there are never moments where it feels like he’s leaning on it unnecessarily.
There are 16 songs total, the first 12 occurring during the first act and the remaining four coming during the second. (The seventh song, “Tiny People,” is extremely funny and a clear marker of when Small Ball begins to become powerful.) All told, intermission included, Small Ball stretches out for a little over two hours, but it feels like it’s over as quickly as it begins. The way that the theater at which it’s playing is set up is so that you can pay whatever amount you’d like for a ticket, regardless of where you’d like to sit. The lowest amount you can pay is $10 and the highest amount is $100. And so, as a way of a show review, I can say with great confidence: If you can, then pay the $100 for your ticket. It is well worth it.
A Discussion About Small Ball If Either (a) You Have Seen It Already or (b) You Will Not Be Seeing It Because You Live in a Different City and, at Least for the Moment, It Is Only Playing in Houston
Small Ball is a great deal of fun, and also surprisingly funny, and also, at times, surprisingly tender, which is remarkable given how weird the show actually ends up being.
What the show is about: Do you remember Lilliput, the little island from Gulliver’s Travels? The one with the people who were 6 inches tall? OK, Small Ball takes place there. The Lilliputians have officially announced their existence to the rest of the world and now have a basketball team (the Existers) who play in a professional league overseas. As a way to make themselves more serious contenders (what with them being 6 inches tall and all), they sign a regular-sized human named Michael Jordan (not the Michael Jordan, is the running gag).
The whole musical is set up so that all of the scenes are, essentially, postgame press conferences that are being held on a beach. (The man and the woman who play members of the press asking the questions at each press conference actually sit out in the middle of the crowd.) There are two tables on the stage. There’s one on the right side of the stage, and that’s where Michael Jordan sits by himself. And there’s one on the left, and that’s where the Lilliputians sit. It’s odd at first because you can’t figure out why they’re at different tables, and also you can’t figure out why they don’t look at each other when they talk to one another. (Jordan looks at the ground when he talks to the Lilliputians, and the Lilliputians look up into the sky when they talk to him.) But once you figure out what’s going on, everything sort of snaps into place, and after a while, it very much begins to feel like Jordan is a giant and the Lilliputians are tiny, and it’s a very neat, rewarding feeling.
(They do a couple of tricks during the show to help set this very particular mood. For example, Jordan will blow smoke from a vape cigarette down toward the ground on the right side of the stage and then a smoke machine will blast a big cloud of smoke down onto the left side of the stage from the sky. Or one of the Lilliputian characters will toss what looks like a giant basketball off to the right side of the stage and then a tiny basketball will come flying in from the left to Jordan.)
The main issue in the play is that Jordan refuses to pass the ball to any of his teammates (he says that he’s afraid the ball will squish them, on account of the ball being about twice as tall as they are), but really the main issue in the play is that nobody is certain of their place in the world. Jordan, who is all the way dreary and disinterested in basketball, feels like a failure, and he’s stuck between not wanting to go back to America (where his mother is suffering from Alzheimer’s and doesn’t remember who he is anymore) and not wanting to be on Lilliput (where he is a freak, and also where he is kind of creeped out by how small everyone is, and also where he has fallen in love with Lilli, one of his Lilliputian teammates). The Lilliputians are stuck between wanting to be recognized by the rest of the world as a proper population and democracy, and wanting to remain hidden, left to their own interests, same as they have been for all of time.
(The main person advocating for the Lilliputians to retreat from the rest of the world is Pippin, the assistant coach on the team who, it would appear, seems to actively avoid basketball.)
(He’s maybe the funniest person in the show.)
(And also the oddest; a kind of sinister-but-still-likable character who pushes everything sideways when he’s on stage.)
(For example, when the Lilliputians are trying to figure out a way to make Michael Jordan pass the ball to them, Pippin suggests that they line the court with 600 archers who, if Jordan doesn’t pass, can shoot him in the face with the 600 arrows, each of which is poison-tipped.)
(Also: Pippin is named after Scottie Pippen; the coach of the Existers refers to himself as Phil Jackson; and the third and fourth players on the team are named Magic and Bird. With the exception of Lilli, who is Phil Jackson’s daughter in the show, all of the Lilliputians on the team have been given American names that mirror famous people in the NBA.)
(Also: The Existers have only four players on their team because the number five doesn’t exist on Lilliput. This ends up becoming the center of a NUMBERS vs. HEART basketball debate between Phil Jackson and his wife, Mrs. Horton, the team’s stats person. It’s a story line that lasts for just about the entirety of the show, and it’s at its most entertaining [and most critical] when Pippin hijacks the argument and somehow turns it into a song about having sex with giants, a leap he makes because he believes Lilli and Michael Jordan have had sex.)
There are a great deal of enjoyable-to-recall moments in the show, but the most impressive of them are the ones when Michael Jordan is given the opportunity to emote, which he does with great force. There’s a time when he sings about losing a game and then being forced to answer questions about losing a game (this one opens the show, and the bigness of his voice establishes immediately that everything he’ll be doing that night will be densely packed with meaning). There’s a time when he sings a song with Lilli where we find out that they’re romantically connected (this, I would argue, is the best moment of the show; Julia Krohn, the woman who plays Lilli, has a voice big enough to match Jordan’s, and watching them bounce notes back and forth to each other is captivating). There’s a time when he has a breakdown and a time when he sings a funny song and a time when he has to reconcile his own potential insignificance, and it’s all just very mesmerizing.
Small Ball ends with Pippin dead (eaten by giant rats); Magic and Bird now a father and mother (Magic is a white man and Bird is a black woman who, as it turns out, was pregnant the whole time; she gives birth offstage and returns holding her baby in her hand, except the baby is as tiny as a grain of sand, much to the disbelief of the press members who are asking about it); coach Phil Jackson and Mrs. Horton having reconciled their differences; and Michael Jordan (somehow) having shrunken down to Lilliputian size so he can live forever with Lilli, but only after sucking the poison out of her chest that had been deposited there via bow and arrow.
Again: Small Ball is weird.
But also touching.