The great thing about basketball is that it’s simple. You win or you lose. There isn’t really much in between. Art, on the other hand, is much more complex with a great deal more ambiguity. Which is why Small Ball, the musical commissioned and produced by Rockets GM Daryl Morey, is hard to define. Yes, it’s about basketball, but only in the sense that it involves a basketball player, a team, a coach and a press conference—a maniacal, days-long press conference on a beach, but still.
Produced by Catastrophic Theatre and directed by long-time Houston sports fan Jason Nodler and his artistic partner Tamarie Cooper (she also has one of the more envious parts in the musical as a reporter sitting literally in the center of the audience lobbing questions at the cast on stage), Small Ball follows Michael Jordan—an MJ, not the MJ—as he pursues his fading dream of playing semi-professional basketball on the island of Lilliput, the mythical land of tiny people from Gulliver’s Travels.
Jordan stares down death from poisonous arrows, refuses to pass the ball to his tiny teammates (including Lilli, with whom he discovers a budding, if anatomically complicated, romance—Morey recently said on Facebook, “Whatever you do, don’t Google Sex with Giants.”), tries to explain to the Lilliputions what the number five is (as bizarre as it sounds) and waxes existential about motion and life, all while constantly fielding questions from unseen sports reporters, who seem as confused as he is. If it all sounds a little weird, you’d be wrong; it’s a lot weird. But, it is also outrageously fun with laughs a-plenty and enough insider-y basketball one-liners to keep Rockets fans happy.
I’m not a musical theater buff, as a general rule. In fact, I recently wrote a story for the Houston Press on good reasons to dislike musicals. But, Small Ball avoids most of the trappings of the genre—cheesy music, lame dialogue, over-the-top performances, a song for literally everything. Instead, this is a musical that is layered and complex, the performances subtle and thought-provoking.
One of my pet peeves of musicals is the music often feels pointless, more a matter of requirement than necessity. Not so for Small Ball. Instead of a bombastic pit orchestra, composers Merel Van Dijk and Anthony Barilla opted for a small chamber ensemble situated behind a translucent scrim backstage, mere feet from the actors, where they would occasionally become visible. The music was sparse and quiet, the songs funny and weird.
Maybe most compelling is that the music lilts through the performance even while the characters are speaking, like a film score, underpinning the angst of Michael Jordan, and the mounting frustrations of Lilli, her teammates and the assembled media.
In sports, we like to talk about balance and maybe that’s the best description I can give to Small Ball: it’s balanced. If you are hoping for Les Mis or Cats or even Book of Mormon, this ain’t it. It has elements of all those things—this is a musical after all—but the goal here is clearly to set a mood as much as it is to drive home a love story or reach a catharsis. In fact, this isn’t about catharsis at all, but rather how to find chemistry with each other and the world around you, whether that be on a basketball court or on a beach laying on a pile of seaweed for a bed (you’ll see).
Playwright Mickle Maher is at his enigmatic and existential best in this, his first musical. He certainly goes for laughs when appropriate which, fortunately for us, is often. But, he uses his own unique twist on the surreal to force the audience to make connections and look deeper into the characters. It’s heady, but not difficult to follow and it doesn’t hurt that Maher, himself, is a huge basketball fan, slipping in references to Stephon Marbury and the occasional statistic, with, no doubt, an assist or two from Morey.
And it would be tough to imagine a better pairing than Maher’s quirky intellectualism and the score from Van Dijk and Barilla. Nodler called it a “dream team” pairing, but it would have meant little without his and Cooper’s steady hands in the co-director’s chairs. Neither are strangers to putting an absolutely crazy idea on stage. As a result, the musical makes for a wonderfully entertaining night at the theater and a head-scratching conversation starter. Sports fans should be familiar because perhaps the only thing we like more than winning is taking about our winning, a central theme of the musical as voiced in it’s opening number.
This isn’t so much a musical about basketball as a musical that uses basketball as both vehicle and metaphor. Sports fans will love it and also probably leave the theater a little dazed. Small Ball is intellectually complex and, at times, downright strange, but it is also wildly entertaining and laugh-a-minute hilarious. Nodler says he doesn’t so much want to put on performances as create an experience we can all share in the dark together. Mission accomplished.