Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Green, Gold and the Great White Way

After October 21, 2010, Broadway may never be the same.

As both a theatrical producer and Packer fan, I've been following this production's development with some interest. It sits right there at the intersection of two of my great loves, making me more or less this show's natural audience.

LOMBARDI is written by Steppenwolf Theatre member (and Wisconsin native) Eric Simonson, adaptated from When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi by Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Maraniss. Simonson previously adapted the Maraniss biography into a different play, called "The Only Thing", for the sadly-defunct Madison Repertory Theatre in 2007.

The show stars Dan Lauria (The Wonder Years) and Judith Light (who was magnificent in Wit Off-Broadway, but is best known for her television work on Who's the Boss) as Vince and Marie Lombardi. It is produced by Tony Ponturo and Fran Kirmser, in partnership with the NFL, and directed by Thomas Kail. Rounding out the creating team is David Korins (Scenic Design), Paul Tazewell (Costume Design), Howell Binkley (Lighting Design), Acme Sound Partners and Nevin Steinberg (Sound Design), and Zachary Borovay (Projection Design).

Previews begin September 23, and it opens on October 21. It will run at the Circle in the Square Theatre in midtown Manhattan.

Set in 1965, the narrative concerns a reporter (played by Keith Nobbs) who has come to Green Bay to do a story on Lombardi. From one of the show's television commercials:
My name's Michael McCormick. I'm a sports reporter for Look magazine. My next story is on Vince Lombardi, coach of the World Champion Green Bay Packers. He wins practically all the time, and no one knows exactly why or how. It's my job to find out, and it's Coach Lombardi's job to keep me from finding out. Everything's a contest with him. Same for me. May the best man win.
This is a classic dramatic conceit: the outsider introduced into an existing world. He serves as the audience surrogate, an excuse to introduce all the expository material that we'll need to understand the world of the play. He has a second function in this case; by inserting a fictional character among real people the playwright has a free hand to explore motivations and an emotional journey that those real people might prefer not be attached to their names.

I'm curious to see how they make the narrative work, if this conflict they've created can be sustained over 90 minutes, and if they try to assign some type of character arc to Lombardi himself or keep it within the fictional creation McCormick.

Of course, I'm also curious as to how the production will treat one of Lombardi's most enduring legacies, his classic Packer uniform. You knew that it had to make an appearance, right? The show can't all be serious speeches in suits and narrow ties. These production photos were taken during the show's out-of-town tryout in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, and should give us a pretty good idea of what the Broadway production will look like, starting with the entire cast:

left to right: Dave Robinson (Robert Christopher Riley), Paul Hornung (Bill Dawes), Jim Taylor (Chris Sullivan), Vince Lombardi (Dan Lauria), Michael McCormick (Keith Nobbs) and Marie Lombardi (Judith Light)

The uniforms look accurate enough at first glance. Although Lombardi's design underwent a series of changes in its first several seasons, by 1965 all the elements that today we associate with the uniform were in place; the particular block number font had been added the season before and the green/white/green pants stripes (matching the helmet) were in their third season.

I do have one nitpick, and it's that the three gentlemen are wearing their socks like baseball players. Note to Mr. Tazewell: football players never let their stirrup straps show. Going back to the earliest days of the pro game they have always worn low whites over the colored stirrups. Those whites have been pulled up to various degrees, in the case of Lombardi's Packers covering not only the straps but frequently the team's distinctive stripes as well:

A minor detail, but hey. They're so close in other respects.

Of course, Vince Lombardi had a uniform of his own, and Lauria wears it well:

Dan Lauria

That's the classic Lombardi game day sideline look - fedora and camel hair coat over the pullover team jacket. We also get a view of Lauria in Lombardi's practice regalia:

Keith Nobbs and Dan Lauria

Ah, my favorite Packers logo of all, the interlocking GB. Introduced by Lombardi, it was worn on practice caps through his tenure and on into the Phil Bengston and Dan Devine eras.

On the non-uniform front, we have these photos to give us a general sense of the production. Circle in the Square is an inspired choice - an intimate house with a thrust stage to highlight the small two-character scenes, perfect for this kind of show.

Dan Lauria

Judith Light and Dan Lauria

Dan Lauria

Dan Lauria and Judith Light

Sports movies are tough enough to make work, but a play set in the world of sports is a unique animal. A play can't fall back on the manufactured drama of The Big Game in the third act. A play can't offer up endless montages of game action to cover structural weaknesses. A play is actors, audience, no place to hide. Emotions carried through the air by the playwright's words.

Now, I can see this going one of two ways: the producers will either make us care about the Lombardi character as a human being, or they will be content to collect our money and feed us our own edited nostalgia, a "greatest hits" clip show of Lombardi's pithy quotes, inspirational speeches and sideline rants.

I'm curious to see if the story can really stand on its own, if it has the emotional weight to justify the $150 (and up) ticket, or if it's just a jukebox musical for sports geeks. I have tickets for the first week. Should be interesting.

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