- Last Updated: 3:49 PM, April 12, 2012
- Posted: 11:14 PM, April 11, 2012
Longacre Theatre, 220 W. 48th St.; 212-239-6200.
What makes “Magic/Bird” work isn’t the mystique still attached to its subjects, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, legends though they are.
Rather, the joint tale that opened on Broadway last night successfully trades on a tried-and-true setup: “Magic/Bird” is basically “The Odd Couple” with hoops.
On the one hand, we have Earvin “Magic” Johnson (Kevin Daniels): African-American, gregarious and charming, embracing his fame in the flashy fashion typical of his LA team, the Lakers.
On the other, there’s Larry Bird (Tug Coker): the white hick from French Lick, Ind., laconic and reserved, the main man of Boston’s Celtics and their working-class fans.
The scenes between the two are often quite funny, especially since playwright Eric Simonson and director Thomas Kail — the team behind “Lombardi,” a stage portrait of football’s answer to Yoda — exaggerate the contrast between the men. Magic is the squeaky-clean Mr. Happy. Bird, who could trash-talk with the best of them, becomes a retiring guy who delivers one-word sentences in a monotone.
The personal differences translate to a larger confrontation about race and class, with the perennial East Coast versus West Coast feud to spice things up.
The show’s tone remains light, though. Typical are a couple of humorous scenes in a Boston bar, pitting a black Lakers fan (Francois Battiste, snappy as well playing a squeaky-voiced Bryant Gumbel) against a white Celtics supporter (Peter Scolari, who also impersonates Lakers coach Pat Riley and Celtics general manager Red Auerbach).
And unlike many real-life dramas, this story doesn’t have a tragic ending. Magic’s 1991 announcement that he was HIV-positive concluded his career with the Lakers, but you could see this revelation as having had a positive impact in terms of educating people and, perhaps, making a sheltered player grow up.
Magic and Bird also taught a lesson in sportsmanship by feeding on their animosity to better their game. “He’s the best there is,” Bird says of Magic. “I don’t know what I’m doing here.” So he practices some more.
Eventually, they became solid friends.
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.
Simonson and Kail should have turned off that folksy faucet and given us more b-ball action, especially since the show makes judicious use of archival footage — a marked improvement on “Lombardi,” which was all locker-room speeches and domestic scenes.
Here, video of the real Magic and Bird takes over from Daniels and Coker after they set up baskets. We also relive key moments from the historic 1980s Lakers-Celtics finals via excerpts from the telecasts.
Even Nevin Steinberg’s sound design contributes, as when it mixes the faint echo of thumping balls with the squeak of sneakers on a court, creating an almost subliminal sense of energy.
Yep, as far as bioplays go, this one’s got bounce.