Monday, November 15, 2010

Theatre Review: Lombardi on Broadway

No Packer game to report on this week. The Bears and Vikings had an interesting little game yesterday, and the Vikings continued their road losing streak - now at 8 games. The Bears moved back into a tie with the Packers, although they have the tiebreaker advantage over the Packers as of right now. Lots to think about this week as the Packers prepare for what is almost certainly going to be their final game against the league's interception leader, Brett Favre.

That will have to wait for a later blog entry. Right now, I am going to play the part of theatre critic for the first, and quite possibly the only, time in the history of this blog, a review of the show Lombardi on Broadway. I have been a big fan of live theatre for a long time, almost as long as I have been a Packer fan. When I first heard that David Maraniss' book, When Pride Still Mattered, was going to be the basis of a Broadway show on the life of Vince Lombardi, I was a bit apprehensive. I started to read this book when it came out, and I found it a fascinating and richly-detailed biography, but I got busy at work and never finished it. (I pulled it off the bookshelf the other day and intend to finish it now.) It was the rich detail of it that made me wonder about a theatrical script based on this book. Vince Lombardi, in popular culture, has become something of a cartoon character, with his persona being defined mostly by the disputed quote: "winning isn't everything; it's the only thing."

So how do you reduce the richness and nuance of Lombardi's life to a short script, without turning him into a caricature? I should not have worried about it, as playwright Eric Simonson (who grew up in Wisconsin and had an uncle of the Packers' Board of Directors) did a great job of conveying the complexity of Vince Lombardi in a short script (the show only runs about 95 minutes, with no intermission). You get the essence of Vince Lombardi, as I remember him from my youth, from many years of seeing him on NFL Films, and from my (partial) reading of David Maraniss' book. But he comes across as a real person, flaws and all, and not as a cartoon. There is not always a lot of cross-over between the theatre world and the sports world, so it was not obvious that they would do a good job of this, and they are to be commended for having done so. To take a somewhat parallel example - how do you take a long, complex and dark novel like Victor Hugo's Les Misérables and turn it into a Broadway musical? Yet producer Cameron Mackintosh assembled a team of writers and composers who turned it into one of the most successful musicals of all time.

The NFL and the Packers have actively cooperated with the producers in putting on this show. The Packers brought in the cast and crew to visit Green Bay, to tour the Packer Hall of Fame, to spend time with Coach McCarthy, to attend practice, and even to have actor Dan Lauria sit at Vince Lombardi's desk. The NFL has helped to bring in NFL people to talk-back sessions after certain shows (we had punter Sean Landeta and broadcaster Bob Papa at the show we attended), and the NFL even has a Lombardi Trophy on display in the lobby for a short time, along with the other Packer and Lombardi memorabilia. Cheryl Nelson brought to my attention a story published about the large group of Packer front office people, directors, guests and travelling Packer fans who saw the show on the Saturday night before the Packers-Jets game in the Meadowlands.

There are six actors in the cast. They are all good, even if we had some small issues with the actors who played Paul Hornung, Jim Taylor, and Dave Robinson. The other three were outstanding. Dan Lauria, best known for the TV series The Wonder Years, really looks the part of Lombardi, and his enthusiasm for the role is obvious, as is the fact that he is something of a natural for the part. He looks like Lombardi right down to the gap between his front teeth (which he admitted, in the talk-back session, is enhanced for the part by nail polish), and like Lombardi, he is of Italian heritage, raised in New York, he played high school and college football (as a linebacker), and was a high school football coach before concentrating on acting. Lauria plays Lombardi as driven, as you would expect, but also as a conflicted and complicated character, who deeply needs his wife Marie to soften his rough edges.

Judith Light, unknown to me but obviously known to many in the audience from various TV series including One Life to Live and Who's the Boss, plays Marie Lombardi and steals practically every scene in which she appears. I don't really remember Marie Lombardi at all, but what a fascinating portrayal of Coach Lombardi's better half. She was the quintessential New Yorker, out of place in small-town Wisconsin, with a bit of a drinking problem, a very wry sense of humor, a sharp tongue, and the only one who could really get through to the Coach at times. The players would come to her from time to time to get the Coach to lighten up. Lauria and Light's portrayal of the difficult but devoted marriage between the two gives us an insight into the couple that you will never get from NFL Films.

Finally, Keith Nobbs, also unknown to me, plays Michael McCormick, a fictional reporter for Look magazine, who spends a week with the Lombardis writing a story about the coach, and who serves, in effect, as the narrator of the play. The device of the narrator, to help make the story make sense, is artificial, of course. But he has the earnest young sports reporter character, a bit in awe of his subject, but enough of a reporter to try not to show it, down to a "T."

My wife and I are life-long Packer fans. We were of course predisposed to like this show. Maybe the better test of the quality of the show was our friend Bik Moy, a New York friend who frequently goes to Broadway shows with us when we are in New York. Bik claims not to have known Lombardi the coach from Lombardi's the pizzeria, which claims to be the first pizzeria in America. And yet she seemed to enjoy the show every bit as much as we did. I suppose that the show had a certain resonance and richness for us that it did not have for Bik. But she could enjoy the show as a biography of a fascinating historical figure, well written and well acted.

The show has received mostly favorable reviews, except in the New York Times. Interestingly, a number of the reviews make the same point made by our friend Bik's enjoyment of the show - that you don't need to be a fan of Vince Lombardi, the Green Bay Packers, or even the sport of football to enjoy this show. Some of the good reviews were published by the Wall Street Journal, the New York Daily News, Talkin' Broadway, and the New York Post.

Two final notes. I am on the traditional side as a theatre goer. I know you can go in flip-flops and a T-shirt, but it just seems wrong to me. But in the case of Lombardi, by all means wear your jersey. I did, and so did at least a couple of other people I noticed in the audience. See it while you can, the theatre business is a tough one, and there is no telling how long it will run.

And, on a related note, HBO has a new documentary on Lombardi's life. If you are on the invitation-only guest list, you can see it at Lambeau Field on November 18. The rest of us will have to wait until December 11 to see it on HBO. What is with all this interest in Vince Lombardi, 40 years after his death? More importantly, could it be some kind of omen of glory days to come?

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