The Catamounts go all in on “Small Ball” a musical at Buntport Theatre
From the get-go, the new musical “Small Ball” — book by Mickle Maher, music by Merel van Dijk and Anthony Barrila — promises the slightly lunatic. And the always ingenious Catamounts more than delivers on that with a production that is zany and pointed, clever and poignant.
The production is so very ambitious that this viewer was left with the sense that its makers are trying to say even more than I could grasp with confidence on one sitting. There is much here to gnaw on, starting with the use of Jonathan Swift’s satirical novel “Gulliver’s Travels.”
Basketballer Michael Jordan (Orlanders Jones), a player from the “larger world,” is a starter for the newly formed four-man Lilliputian Existers. Four? Sports fans might balk. Yes, four, and it is an issue for the team and the tiny island nation that the team’s analytics director and former empress will ponder throughout much of the musical.
The outside world has recently confirmed the reality of the famed land of the very wee — as well as the actuality of countless other fabled and fan-fiction realms. (With these discoveries, as the show asserts, “death is the only mystery.”) Lilliput’s former emperor (Jordan Leigh) has since declared himself president-elect. Oh, and he’s rechristened himself Phil Jackson and coaches the Existers.
The former empress has taken a new name, too: Mrs. Horton, from the Dr. Seuss classic “Horton Hears a Who.” Because their Lilliputian names would be too hard to pronounce, all Lilliputians have adopted new names: There’s Lilli (Heidi Carann Snider), daughter of Phil and Mrs. Horton; Bird (Sonia Just); Magic (Richard Cadwallader); and assistant coach, Pippin (Zayaz Da Camara).
As the musical opens, Phil is about to conduct his first press conference. With one-third of his three-game season behind him, he sits at a table that is much too large for him. The production pulls off the illusion of the meeting of the small and the larger worlds by sweet and simple implication. Michael looks down on the Lilliputians, as if from a cliff. Phil and company often crane their heads upwards to talk with Jordan.
At a table too small, on the other side of the stage from his tiny coach, Jordan begins singing: “First you lose and then they make you talk about it.” Then adds, about the demands of the post-game presser: “Which is more amusing? Which their greater joy? The losing or the story of the losing?”
Bob and Laura, the hosts of Trickle Sports’ “That Seems a Little Unlikely” — a sub-par mix of Entertainment Tonight and ESPN Sports Center — trot onstage to conduct the interview. Bob (Mark Collins) and Laura (Sonia Justl) remain in the audience as the show unfolds, peppering the characters with questions. They might be our stand-ins. At the very least, they reflect and refract the larger world’s curiosity about Lilliput.
Phil’s oversized journeyman player, who has journeyed very far indeed and sleeps on a bed of seaweed, should be his star player. Only MJ — no, not that MJ, goes the show’s refrain — refuses to pass the ball. Although teammate Lilli thinks otherwise, Jordan’s reasons are less ball-hog than they are compassionate.
Jordan’s voice carries a deep and dispirited melancholy that goes beyond the team’s failings on the court. (Soon we’ll learn that back in the larger world, his mother’s memory is faltering.)
The musical’s composers inject the varied moods of its characters into the very intonation of their songs. Not all the singing here is traditionally beautiful, or rides on musical theater’s tuneful familiarity. Instead, Dijk’s vocal arrangements express tensions that don’t find easy release. (Her haunting vocal arrangements won’t surprise those familiar with hers and Barilla’s work as pop group Merel & Tony.)
It’s telling and more than a bit amusing that the most melodic character is also its most malevolent. With smooth gestures and creepy phrasing, Da Camara makes Pippin an enthralling and hilarious monster. When he sings “Other People,” you realize the breadth of Pippin’s narcissism. “So weird to think there are other people,” he begins. “Other than myself, I mean, you know?” The whole smaller-world-meets-larger-world wonders and contretemps leave him bored — which is not a good thing.
If the songs tease the conflicted moods of its characters — their uncertainty and ambivalence, yearning and enthusiasm — Trent Hines’ musical direction offers a score with an off-kilter buoyancy. The band delivers lilting and lulling notes from behind a large scrim. Designer Matthew Schlief’s scenic design and projections of a lapping sea beneath a starry sky or cresting sun reflect the island’s beauty but also its isolation. The backdrop suggests both an existential lonesomeness and a desire for connection, to know what’s beyond the horizon line.
The musical’s ensemble answers the demands of the wholly fantastical. Leigh captures Phil Jackson’s little-big-man cravings as well as his frustrations. Unlike his Zen Buddhist namesake, this Phil often swings from frantic to imperial and back again. As Mrs. Horton, Dresser reveals a woman freed and intrigued by the newness of a vaster world. Snider’s Lilli has the “gimme-the-ball” energy of a scrappy, diminutive NBA player.
Late in the musical, the meeting of small and large will become even more complicated. Love will do that. And when it does, as is the way with the media, reporters Bob and Laura will be there to pose questions that are a mix of the innocent and the invasive.
Throughout “Small Ball,” playful jabs at the sports-entertainment-industrial complex come fast and furious. While sports have an in-the-moment authenticity, what surrounds them, pre- and post-, is nearly always performative. This is a funny and rich premise, one that surely appealed to Daryl Morey. The NBA executive, data nerd and president of basketball operations at the Philadelphia 76ers put his money behind the show.
Swift stated that he wrote “Gulliver’s Travels” “to vex the world rather than divert it.” Sports provide plenty of entry points to take on life and American culture; and there is much here about corruption, power plays and grievances. But “Small Ball,” at its most twisting and clever, has plenty to say about the tender belly of sport, too. As with the larger and smaller worlds represented, discovery goes both ways.
IF YOU GO
“Small Ball”: a Catamounts production. Book by Mickle Maher, music by Anthony Barilla and Merel van Dijk. Directed by Jessica Jackson. Featuring Jordan Leigh, Orlanders Jones, Diana Dresser, Maggie Tisdale, Mark Collins, Sonia Justl, Heidi Carann Snider, Richard Cadwallader, Mark Collins and Zayaz Da Camara. Through Nov. 20 at Buntport Theater, 717 Lipan. For tickets and info, go to thecatamounts.org.
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