Michael Jordan has an assist problem. Not the NBA legend, but a Michael Jordan — a mediocre journeyman point guard, who has managed to even wash out of the Icelandic Dominos (as in pizza) League.
Jordan has now washed ashore on a much more exotic land, the recently-discovered-to-be-real Lilliput. Will the six-foot-plus Jordan learn to pass the ball to his six-inch teammates, and therefore assist the island nation–from Jonathan Swift’s 18th-century satiric masterpiece Gulliver’s Travels–in gaining respect from the rest of normal-sized humanity? Such is the dilemma in Small Ball the delightfully deranged world premiere musical from Catastrophic Theatre.
Produced and commissioned by Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, Small Ball has garnered much early media attention as probably the first basketball musical ever. Yet, with book and lyrics by playwright Mickle Maher, a Catastrophic favorite, music by Meryl van Dijk and Tony Barilla and as directed by company co-founders, Jason Nodler and Tamarie Cooper, I’d argue for also categorizing the strange, wondrous and very funny show as perhaps the first full court pressing absurdest musical.
Maher does bring sports and sportscasting satire to the show, though much more gently than Swift’s swipes at the politics of his time. But from its lovely and poignant first song “First You Lose” to its funny yet weirdly wise finale “Don’t Drown,” Small Ball goes beyond comedy and basketball to present a melodic questioning of the nature of reality, storytelling and the meaning of our bizarre existence, no matter what our size.
A different kind of musical
Don’t expect elaborate dance numbers on a basketball court stage, as Maher sets most of the scenes during pre and post-game press conferences. Two sports reporters (Tamarie Cooper and Jeff Miller) spend the entire show in the audience asking questions, including the difference between “the” and “a” Michael Jordan. Above all, they probe to find out why Jordan (Orlanders Tao Jones) refuses to pass the ball to his tiny teammates. Is it a salary dispute? Is he afraid he’ll crush the other players? Or is Jordan having a much more existential dilemma about moving and playing in this game of life, especially on a team named the Lilliputian Existers?
Just as frustrated and demanding of answers is coach Phil Jackson (Rodrick Randall), the former Lilliputian emperor, now president-elect. It seems both rudimentary democracy, basketball and rats have arrived on Lilliput as imports from the outside, averaged-sized world.
Jackson is later joined at the table by the admittedly-villainous assistant coach, Pippin (Seán Patrick Judge), players Bird (Candice D’Meza) and Magic (Greg Cote) and the team’s director of analytics, Horton (Angela Pinina), who is also Jackson’s wife. We later meet the Existers real star player, Lilli (Julia Krohn), Jackson and Horton’s daughter and therefore the former-princess. Another cause of their losing streak might stem from their lack of a fifth player, since Lilliputian culture doesn’t have a concept of the number five.
A dream team
As crazy as this set up might sound, the slam dunking performances by the cast make the concepts both plausible and outlandish at the same time, which seem to be Maher and directors Nodler and Cooper objective in surrealistic world-building. On the beach of Lilliput everyone wrestles with insomnia while living in a dream-like state under the constant camera lights.
D’Meza and Cote are all in as reluctant players. Randall makes a good case that many coaches are likely melodramatic ex-emperors at heart, and Pinina gives Horton a complexity in all the chaos as both mathematician and understandably pissed off wife. Krohn plays Lilli as a powerhouse princess who won’t take shit, even while falling in love.
While I’m certain Judge in reality is not as gleefully demented as Pippin, he does reveal himself a skilled scene kleptomaniac. This isn’t really the kind of show that includes a show-stopping number, but Judge’s rendition of the hilarious yet somehow nuanced “Sex With Giants” comes close.
Finally, I’ve caught other Jones performances around town in the past, but I won’t sing praises for his performance as Jordan, only because I’m afraid he’ll soon take his stage presence and glorious voice to larger theatric pastures. So let’s give him lots of roles and try to keep him a Houston secret a little while longer.
Helping keep the cast afloat in this ocean dream is Meryl van Dijk and Tony Barilla’s sweet and sometimes melancholy score. Barilla also leads the fine orchestra behind the set backdrop depicting the Lilliputian sea and sky.
Like the whole concept of tiny, fantastical people playing basketball, Small Ball, the musical is so out there, it probably shouldn’t even exist. And perhaps it doesn’t. Maybe Houston is just having a mass theatrical waking dream about the general manager of the Rockets teaming up with our local avant garde theater company to produce a musical about Swift’s Lilliput becoming corporeal, putting together a basketball team and recruiting a Michael Jordan to lead them. If such is the case, I say: dream and play on.
Small Ball runs through May 13 at the MATCH.