The Lilliputians contemplate "Sex With Giants.” Photo by Anthony Rathbun
Originally appeared on CultureMap
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.
The biggest news from Astros spring training in West Palm Beach has been the arrival of muscle-packed third baseman Alex Bregman, who’s in the final year of his contract with free agency looming.
Facing a battalion of microphones, Bregman has been saying all the right things – all the right things that Astros fans are happy to hear.
“I feel like I’ve never been in better shape in my life.”
“I expect to have the best season I’ve ever had.”
“I absolutely love every single second here. Being able to put on this jersey is an absolute honor and a dream come true for me as a kid. When it comes to the contract, I just let Scott do that.”
"Scott" is Bregman’s cold-blooded agent Scott Boras who is known for taking his clients to free agency and playing hardball with owners. Bregman, who will be 30 at the end of the season, is expected to draw offers perhaps as rich as $250 million over seven or eight years.
When I watched Bregman talk about his love for Houston and how he’d love to stay an Astro, I was half looking for an earpiece like the Impractical Jokers wear, with Boras whispering to Bregman what to say.
At the same time, but not the same place, Astros general manager Dana Brown was gushing over the Astros third sacker.
“He’s locked in. He is a special talent.”
“I’m expecting he’s going to have a really good season. I’m excited.”
“He has the heartbeat of a champion.”
The way Bregman and Brown are talking … I’ve heard less flirty prom invitations.
Now cue the scary music from horror movies. When Bregman was asked, have the Astros approached you with any offer of an extension, he answered a simple “no.”
When pressed for a timetable on a Bregman extension, Brown admitted, “at some point we’ll put together an offer. But right now we’re not engaged in an offer.”
In other words, both sides are talking. But not to each other.
Spring training is in full swing. Often players say if they don’t have an extension by the start of the season, they’ll shut down contract talks. They don’t want to think about a contract when they’re in the batter’s box and the games count. We don’t know if that is Bregman’s position, but it’s Boras’ modus operandi. It’s looking more and more like hello free agent Alex Bregman.
If Bregman is looking for a long-term deal at $200 million-plus, that’s more than Astros have ever offered a player. It could be too costly for owner Jim Crane’s blood.
Where do you stand on the Astros-Bregman dilemma? If you were Jim Crane, what would you do?
Break the bank and pay the man? After all, Bregman is a key piece of the Astros lineup. He’s been a dependable, hard-nosed player, a bit of a lovable wise ass and a huge part of the Astros’ dynastic run since 2017. Last year Bregman played 161 games, batted .262 with 25 homers, 98 RBI and 103 runs scored. He was a Gold Glove finalist at third base. He’s well liked in the clubhouse and adored by Astros fans. He has his own line of condiments.
Or let Bregman walk and save the money to make a run at keeping Kyle Tucker? As old school sports writers would say, you can look it up. In 2019, his career year so far, he batted .296, belted 41 homers, drove in 112 runs and led the league with 119 walks. He finished second in MVP voting behind Mike Trout. He hasn’t made an All-Star Game since then. His numbers, while not in free fall, have dwindled the past four years. He still is an above average player, though. Some team looking to go deep in the postseason will offer him big bucks at season’s end.
If it were up to you, would that team be the Astros?