Group Created with Sketch.
Volume 24 No. 158
  • Created with Sketch.
  • Created with Sketch.
  • Created with Sketch.

"Magic/Bird" Opening Night On Broadway Draws Largely Mixed Reviews

The Broadway play “MAGIC/BIRD” opened last night in N.Y., and it is an “efficiently informative but uninspired trek through the lives of two towering figures in sports history,” according to the N.Y. TIMES’ theater critic Charles Isherwood. The play represents “another workmanlike attempt to colonize a small patch of Broadway for the underserved straight male constituency.” Isherwood writes while “none who followed the concurrent NBA careers” of Basketball HOFers LARRY BIRD and MAGIC JOHNSON are “likely to learn anything revelatory in ‘Magic/Bird,’ they may be content to relive the highlights reel presented here, which is amplified by scenes that attempt to portray the human side of the superhuman athletes.” But the dual heroes “never emerge as nuanced or magnetic stage figures, and the celebrated rivalry between them … stirs little more excitement, since their relationship off the court was one of mutual respect but minimal interaction, and hardly intimate friendship.” Isherwood writes HBO’s documentary “MAGIC & BIRD: A COURTSHIP OF RIVALS” provided a “more in-depth and emotionally resonant take on their relationship” (N.Y. TIMES, 4/12). The AP’s Mark Kennedy wrote under the header, “Broadway Play ‘Magic/Bird’ Is A Warm But Thin Look At 2 NBA Greats.” The producers “cleverly use old video footage of the two ballplayers -- the National Basketball Association is a co-producer -- without letting it become an ESPN special.” Actor KEVIN DANIELS plays Johnson “with natural charisma and an ever-present smile,” and TUG COKER as Bird “sparks most of the night’s biggest laughs just for his dry delivery of a few words.” One of playwright ERIC SIMONSON’s “neatest tricks is using a couple of barflies to help frame parts of the play.” But some of his “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” (AP, 4/11).

LESS THAN EXPECTED: In Boston, Don Aucoin writes the team of producers “has heaved up an airball -- or, at best, a jumper that clangs off the rim.” 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.” The play instead “floats along the surface, giving off a strong whiff of authorized biography.” A lot of “rich dramatic material is left on the sidelines, and two complex men register as cardboard figures who spout platitudes” (BOSTON GLOBE, 4/12). In N.Y., Joe Dziemianowicz writes the play is “by-the-numbers and stiffly acted,” and it "makes the great athletes look smaller than life.” He adds, “As a dramatic meal, ‘M/B’ is a slim spread” (N.Y. DAILY NEWS, 4/12). In Philadelphia, Stan Hochman wrote Simonson “patches together a memorable quote here, a significant scene there,” and that “cut-and-paste system works in a ransom note, but not in a drama about real people.” Daniels is “outstanding” as Johnson, “pitch-perfect in depicting the differences between Earvin and Magic.” Coker, in his Broadway debut, is “spot-on as the solemn Bird, hoarding his inner thoughts.” The other roles “border on caricature.” It is what Simonson “leaves out that is so troubling” (PHILADELPHIA DAILY NEWS, 4/11).

WORTH A LOOK: Also in Philadelphia, Howard Shapiro writes it is a “smooth and warm new play about a friendship that blooms from the deep roots of rivalry.” The theme of sports competition “can cement the foundation for some very good theater,” and Simonson “creates just that from the real story of two men at the same high level of their game" (PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER, 4/12). ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY’s Chris Nashawaty gave the play a C+ and wrote Daniels is “excellent as Johnson.” He “nails the Lakers star's drive, competitiveness, cockiness, and weakness for the glitz of Tinseltown.” Coker “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 that include Lakers coach PAT RILEY, Lakers Owner JERRY BUSS, Celtics GM RED AUERBACH and an obnoxious Boston sports fan, "is his own one-man show.” And DEIRDRE O'CONNELL, who also “handles several roles, shines brightest as Bird's no-nonsense mother.” Still, as “vividly as the actors inhabit their parts, Eric Simonson's story is a bit too thin for Broadway.” The play is “primarily concerned with dramatizing the inner lives of these men, which may have been the least exciting thing about them” (, 4/11). In Boston, Fee, Raposa & Johnson write the actor who “steals his scenes” is Scolari, who also plays Bird’s agent BOB WOOLF. Daniels “fell short in his portrayal of Johnson, who is known to have two personalities” (BOSTON HERALD, 4/12).

LUCK BE A LADY: ESPNW’s Amanda Rykoff wrote in a “pivotal scene that provides the heart of the play, Larry's mother hosts Johnson and Bird for lunch at her home in French Lick, Ind.” The lunch took place “during the summer of 1985, when the two rivals filmed a Converse commercial to plug their respective sneakers.” In the lunch scene, one of the “longest in the 90-minute play, Georgia welcomes Johnson warmly to the house.” She proceeds to “tease her son by talking about how much she admires BILL LAIMBEER and ISIAH THOMAS, among others.” Simonson said, "When it came to the lunch scene between Magic and Larry, which was so key to the relationship, I had to make a lot of stuff up. (Magic and Larry) just couldn't remember exactly what happened at that lunch or what was said. I went to other sources.” Simonson “took it upon himself to create a character based on information he did have” about Bird’s mother (, 4/11).

Johnson, Bird were initially hesitant
about participating in the play
MIRROR, MIRROR: Johnson said that he and Bird “initially were hesitant about the idea, even if they had collaborated on a book” with sports writer JACKIE MACMULLAN. In L.A., Mark Medina notes after seeing the Broadway play "LOMBARDI," they “warmed to its producers, FRAN KIRMSER and TONY PONTURO. Johnson said that he and Bird “approved the way they would reenact scenes involving the NCAA title game, the Lakers-Celtics rivalry and even Johnson's announcement that he had HIV.” And Johnson “ensured that the actor portraying him, Kevin Daniels, received enough material that he could embody his charismatic personality” (L.A. TIMES, 4/12). Bird said, “My first reaction was it’s not really me. I don’t know much about plays. I’ve been to them, but this is different. This was about me.” Johnson said, “They did a wonderful job casting. ‘Lombardi’ warmed me, and then we really had to work on Larry” (N.Y. TIMES, 4/12).