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Review Roundup: MAGIC/BIRD Opens on Broadway - All The Reviews!

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MAGIC/BIRD, a new play from the team that brought LOMBARDI to the stage last season opened tonight, April 11, 2012 on Broadway. Let's see what the critics had to say!

At the heart of one of the fiercest rivalries in sports, two of the greatest athletes of all-time battled for multiple championships and the future of their sport. Hall of Famers Earvin "Magic" Johnson and Larry Bird could not have been more different; one black, one white; one an urbanite with a big smile and Hollywood appeal, and the other a quiet small town guy. Johnson and Bird, went head to head, electrified the nation, reinvigorated the NBA, and turned their rivalry into the greatest and most famous friendships in professional sports. With classic NBA footage prominently designed throughout, Magic/Bird transports the audience into the heart of their matchup.

MAGIC/BIRD reunites Lombardi's playwright Eric Simonson and director Thomas Kail and creative team David Korins (Set), Howell Binkley (Lighting), Paul Tazewell (Costumes), and Nevin Steinberg (Sound). Jeff Sugg (Projections) will weave historic NBA film footage throughout the play. The show will star Kevin Daniels as Earvin "Magic" Johnson & Tug Coker as Larry Bird. Rounding out the cast are Peter ScolariRobert Ray Manning, Jr., Deirdre O'Connell and Francois Battiste.

Michael Sommers, New Jersey Newsroom: Playwright Eric Simonson, who did so ably by a football legend with “Lombardi,” now gives sports- and theater-loving customers alike an enjoyable mix of strong story, smart writing and real-life video that zooms by in 100 minutes. Director Thomas Kail’s staging provides plenty of punch, complete with fine acting and sharp visuals.

Philip Boroff, Bloomberg: “Magic/Bird” cries out for an epilogue, about how Johnson lives with HIV and thrives in business after basketball. Should this play have another life, it would benefit from having more Magic, less Bird, and greater distance from its subjects. Tasteful to a fault, the play is unlikely to offend anyone, particularly the National Basketball Association or Johnson, both involved in producing.

Don Aucoin, The Boston Globe: The plodding pace, greatest-hits superficiality, and hagiographic tone of “Magic/Bird’’ feels jarringly dated, especially at a time when ESPN’s “30 for 30’’ documentary series has shown what provocative stories can be found and told by those willing to probe beneath the myths that surround sports icons. Instead, “Magic/Bird’’ floats along the surface, giving off a strong whiff of authorized biography.

Scott Brown, Vulture: It can’t conceal what it is: an animatronic Epcot pavilion seemingly designed and operated by the NBA. Edited together like a highlight reel (complete with a Coldplay song), Magic/Bird steers us gently but firmly from 1979 — when Bird and Johnson ignited their long contretemps in the NCAA Championship Game — to the early nineties, when both their careers came crashing to a close.

Charles Isherwood, The New York Times: “Magic/Bird,” [is] an efficiently informative but uninspired trek through the lives of two towering (forgive the pun) figures in sports history. ... But as depicted by Mr. Simonson, and portrayed by Kevin Daniels (Mr. Johnson) and Tug Coker (Mr. Bird), the dual heroes never emerge as nuanced or magnetic stage figures, and the celebrated rivalry between them — which revived the flagging fortunes of the N.B.A. in the 1980s — stirs little more excitement, since their relationship off the court was one of mutual respect but minimal interaction, and hardly intimate friendship. ... But the primary obstacle in writing about sports stars for the theater is that the achievements that make them inspiring figures are almost always the feats they performed on the court or the field. Those, of course, can probably never be dramatized in any truly engaging manner onstage.

Neil Best, Newsday: So, is "Magic/Bird" great theater? No, but given inherent limitations, the actors and writer Eric Simonson have done as well as they could have and crafted a show worth seeing. ... By the end, after the 1992 Olympics, the show gets us where we need to be: understanding and appreciating one of sports' more enduring and unusual friendships.

David Rooney, The Hollywood Reporter: The attention-grabbing opening – with much fanfare accompanying the presentation of the six-member cast wearing tracksuits, in the style of NBA game starters – indicates a degree of sports-minded theatrical imagination at work. But the insurmountable problem for Simonson is that listening to people talk about the excitement of a game – albeit with a few clips – is no match for experiencing it. ... Audiences looking for conflict, probing character development or dramatic tension are likely to be underwhelmed.

Jonathan Mandell, The Faster Times: The most powerful moment for me in “Magic/Bird,” a play about the rivalry and then friendship between basketball stars Magic Earvin Johnson and Larry Bird, occurs after Johnson announces that he has HIV, retires, and then returns to play the 1992 NBA All-Star Game. There is so much emotion in Larry Bird’s normally stoic face during the game that I nearly burst into tears. But there is a catch. It is Larry Bird’s actual face up on a screen, one of many video snippets that are used in “Magic/Bird.” Virtually nothing that the live performers do on the stage at the Longacre Theater has anywhere near the impact. And the videos are not enough to fill the gap in drama or excitement.

Marilyn Stasio, Variety: Lacking an actual basketball game on an actual basketball court, Eric Simonson's "Magic/Bird" has zip drama. But techno-savvy designers make terrific use of classic NBA footage, and the actors playing Magic and Bird are cute enough to carry it off. Basketball fans are the obvious target aud, but their dates should have a good time, too.

Howard Shapiro, Philadelphia Inquirer: Daniels and Coker are supported by a team of four actors who make Magic/Bird one of the better examples of ensemble acting on Broadway so far this season. Peter Scolari plays the owners of both teams and other roles; Deirdre O'Connell takes four very different female parts; Francois Battiste and Robert Manning Jr. perform a total of 10 roles - Battiste's Bryant Gumbel imitation is especially a winner, but each of the different roles the four actors play is sharply defined and delivered.

Mark Kennedy, Associated Press: 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.

Matt Windmanam New York: The problem with "Magic/Bird," which is composed primarily of very short scenes, is that no conflict ever develops between the glitzy Johnson and the quiet Bird, who remain painfully polite and respectful to each other. The uneventful play ultimately resembles an audiovisual presentation of a Wikipedia article.

Jacqueline Cutler, Zap 2 It: Relying on footage of games projected onto screens, other actors playing multiple roles and a sparse set, the play never goes beyond the bare facts, which are interesting but not enough to sustain a play.

Elisabeth Vincentelli, NY Post: The only time the 90-minute show’s pace falters is during the overlong scene when Bird’s mom, Georgia (Deirdre O’Connell, stellar in several supporting roles), invites Magic for lunch in her Indiana home. [...] Yep, as far as bioplays go, this one’s got bounce.

Joe Dziemianowicz, NY Daily NewsAs a dramatic meal, “M/B” is a slim spread. B-ball handling consists of a couple of layups and passes. Videos from key games and scenes between a Celtics and Lakers fan in a Boston bar pad the production to 85 minutes. [...] Tug Coker, who plays Bird, could use a jolt. The “hick from French Lick,” as Bird was called, was low-key. But Coker is pure cardboard. Kevin Daniels fares a bit better and brings spark that evokes some of Magic’s magnetism.

Lou Harry, Indianopolis Business JournalAs someone who had some understanding of the relationship between the two men and their importance to basketball but didn’t follow the game closely during the Magic/Bird years (forgive me, I was in New Jersey), it wasn’t clear to me during the play how the story was progressing from season to season. I wanted to feel the tension build and change. Instead of a build-up, it’s more of a blur.

Robert Feldberg, The Record: It has all the depth, nuance and drama you'd find on the back of a bubble-gum card. [...] The actors playing the basketball stars are adequate, although they're considerably shorter than the players' listed heights of 6-feet, 9-inches. To give the illusion of tallness, they stand on platforms built atop the stage, and are surrounded, for the most part, by short supporting actors.

Suzy Evans, BackstageThough director Thomas Kail tries to re-create the adrenaline rush of a basketball game onstage, his trite devices, coupled with Eric Simonson’s flat script, can’t deliver the same energy as a Final Four playoff. [...] The supporting cast—Deirdre O’Connell, Peter Scolari, Francois Battiste, and Robert Manning Jr.—shows impressive range, filling out a series of one-note characters such as sports reporters, bartenders, parents, fans, and teammates.

Davide Cote, Time Out NYGleaming with busy video backdrops and stadium kliegs, Thomas Kail’s production is light, speedy and gamely acted by the spunky ensemble. Kevin Daniels and Tug Coker were obviously cast for extreme verticality, but they also acquit themselves with humor and grace. Slipping in and out of a variety of supporting roles, Peter Scolari and the wonderful Deirdre O’Connell add emotional ballast to the whoosh of statistics and ESPN-friendly trivia. If the total package is less effective drama than “Lombardi” (the creative team’s previous foray into sports history), it’s an affable and warmhearted diversion.

Chris Nashawaty, Entertainment WeeklyLet's start with the good news: Kevin Daniels is excellent as Johnson. He nails the Lakers star's drive, competitiveness, cockiness, and weakness for the glitz of Tinseltown — the orange trees, the celebrities, the Playboy mansion. Tug Coker, as Bird, matches his every feint and crossover dribble in the tougher role of Bird, who was more of an enigma, less articulate, and rarely revealed what made him tick besides his will to perfection. Peter Scolari, in a series of roles ranging from Lakers coach Pat Reilly and owner Jerry Buss, Celtics' cigar-chomping general manager Red Auerbach, and a stereotypically obnoxious Boston sports fan, is his own one-man show.

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