If There's A Trophy for Outstanding Basketball Musicals Not Really About Basketball, Small Ball Is Your Champion

Greg Cote, Candice D'Meza, Sean Patrick Judge, Rodrick Randall, Angela Pinina and Orlanders Tao Jones in Smal Ball
Greg Cote, Candice D'Meza, Sean Patrick Judge, Rodrick Randall, Angela Pinina and Orlanders Tao Jones in Smal Ball Photo by Anthony Rathbun

By the time in the musical, Small Ball, where Pippin (named after famed Chicago Bulls baller Scottie Pippen), the  Assistant Basketball Coach of the Lilliputian Existers (yes, Lilliputian as in Gulliver’s Travels) is standing on the post-game media conference table singing, “Do we want to have sex with giants?” while his teammates and the press look on, we are certain about four things:

1.There’s no way that when Houston Rockets General Manager and musical theater lover, Daryl Morey, agreed to produce a musical about basketball, this is what he had in mind.

2. Perhaps he should have realized it wasn’t going to be a standard game musical, this is Catastrophic Theatre after all. A company with more than a casual penchant for way out there shows that have boggled more than one mind over the years.

3. On the surface, this is a musical about a has-been basketball player named Michael Jordan (no, not THE Michael Jordan) who, newly traded to the rediscovered and found not be only a satirical fiction Island of Lilliput, tries to figure out how to play with six-inch teammates without crushing them to death. But really, the show isn’t about basketball at all. It’s an examination of how we get stuck in place or try too hard to fit into another place, and how neither situation is good for our emotional health.

4. Most importantly, we know that while none of this should gel…Lilliputians, basketball, musical theater, deep dives into the human urges of need and belonging…..not only does it work, but it’s one of the most exciting, original, funny, smart, deliciously intellectual, decidedly weird, gorgeously scored, expertly directed, superbly performed shows we could hope for.

Actually, there were probably five things we knew at this point, but you see the number five hasn’t been discovered in Lilliput yet. It’s why they have only four members on their basketball team. Like I said, it’s a weird show.

That it’s weird is not surprising though when you consider who wrote the book and lyrics. Mickle Maher has long been a playwriting favorite at Catastrophic. In the last four years the company has staged two of his works, The Hunchback Variations (a panel discussion between Quasimodo and Beethoven concerning their search for a mysterious sound effect called for in Anton Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard) and Song About Himself (A dystopian tale of a crumbling Internet and man’s resulting inability to coherently communicate with each other).

Both plays, oddly compelling in their own way, perfectly prepare us for Maher’s habit of narratively showing one thing but really discussing something else much deeper. We’re ready for his declarative dialogue that fits and starts along like conversations characters have at each other rather than between themselves, often to great comic effect. We’re even primed not to like or understand all the references and absurd moments that litter his work. Why, in Small Ball, for example, does a character dream of being a puddle and then proceed to show us his “puddle dance”, an impression of, you guessed it, being a puddle? Beats me, funny as it may be.

What we aren’t prepared for however is Maher’s ability to write song lyrics, sixteen songs in total, not one of them a throwaway, and each remarkably astute eloquently communicating an idea or feeling. First You Lose is a morose yet hysterically on-the-nose song describing the post-game press conference process. “First you lose, and then they make you talk about losing…first you fail and then they make you talk about how you failed.” Which do the media revel in more, the song asks, the failure or the story of the failure?

Other numbers are more exuberantly funny. Furve is the Lilliputian’s failed attempts at understanding or even saying the number Five. Tiny People allows for riotous imagery of what nefarious things might happen to a giant asleep on the island. Pain is all There is (To Tell Me I’m Still Here) takes the loss of a game to its emotional extreme. Poisoned Arrows is all about the evil glee of bending someone to your will. Other People wonderfully mixes solipsism with a distrust of strangers. And of course, there’s the aforementioned Sex With Giants, nativism and anti-globalism given the old Broadway song and dance routine.

Maher also turns out a slew of songs of a more serious tone. The touching We Were Small/Pass Me The Ball is a superb examination of romantic intimacy coupled with frustration at our partners. My New World offers up hope that even when things look grim, there are adventures waiting. Life Stand Still haunts us with the pain of not knowing where to turn next or if turning is even possible.

Merel van Dijk and Anthony Barilla provide the score that beautifully highlights the emotional tone of each song, employing a live band (hidden and sometimes foggily illuminated behind a backdrop scrim) of cellos, piano, bass, clarinet, drums, percussion and Marimba. The music swells, pulses and chugs and most effectively underscores much of the spoken dialogue throughout the show, giving the musical a constant beat that drives the pace of each scene.

So what actually happens in the musical? What’s the story? Would I be shirking my duties if I told you I’d rather not say? To spoil a plot so fantastical beyond what you’ve already read seems like taking all the fun away. There is love. There is a bad guy. There is a hero of sorts. There are basketballs, if not basketball games. There’s consternation over Jordan’s refusal to ever pass the ball. And there is that nasty press conference that presides over it all. Nothing escapes the media’s glare in this show that rolls out like a never-ending stand-off between players and camera lenses.

Co-Directors Jason Nodler and Tamarie Cooper throw all their creative might behind staging this one and it shows most delightfully in the smaller details. To simulate the size difference between their characters, Nodler and Cooper keep Lilliputians sitting at a table to one side of the stage and Michael Jordan with his own table on the other side. Each looks off in the opposite distance, up or down, to see and talk with each other. Smoke blown from Jordan’s vaping cigarette comes out as huge cloudy billows on the Lilliputian’s side. One bang of Jordan’s fist sends mighty tremors to his teammates. Talk about evocative! The audience can see that all actors are same sized, but darn if we don’t project tiny person and giant onto the actors as a result of the directorial cleverness.

Less subtle but just as effective is the positioning of the two television sports reporters (Cooper herself and a terrifically tactless Jeff Miller) smack dab in the middle of the audience sitting among us, unlit and surely not even noticed from some seats. Holding microphones, they lob question after often hilariously inappropriate question at the team, prodding, and pushing, with the rest of us becoming the defacto television audience to the whole shebang. It’s a stunning layer added to a show that already has a lot going on.

On stage, the cast members we’ve come to expect in a Catastrophic show step seamlessly into the Small Ball madness. Candice D’Meza and Greg Cote as teammates Bird and Magic (yeah, named after those guys) provide terrific turns in supporting roles and surprise us all with their irony-free and beautiful delivery of the show’s final and most bizarre musical number.

Seán Patrick Judge as Pippin, he of the Sex with Giants number, nearly steals the show with his straight-backed, verging on prissy, slightly arched eyebrow stance, alternating boredom and disdain for all he sees. His clear voice steers him through the musical’s wittiest numbers to great effect, but it’s his eyes, the slightly crazy evil look he perfects for this role, that makes him a such a standout.

And what a treat to see so many new faces on a Catastrophic stage. Rodrick Randall as Coach Phil Jackson (Yeah, named for the real one) and Angela Pinina as his wife Mrs. Horton (named for the elephant Dr. Seuss character) bring the musical talent we already knew they had and step up to the whacky plate without missing a beat. Playing the coach's daughter and most enthusiastic basketball player, Lilli (short for Lilliput if you’re asking), is Julia Krohn, showing fantastic comedic chops and a voice so pure you feel it warm and gooey in your stomach.

But for those of us who closely watch up and coming talent in this city, there’s no greater thrill than seeing Orlanders Tao Jones take the starring role of Michael Jordan (again, not THE Michael Jordan). Jones, with a voice that ranges from deeply soulful to poppy to big ballad with equal mastery, has many times caught our attention in supporting roles around town. Now in the spotlight, we are treated not just to his ability to bring immense vulnerability to his singing, but to his acting as well. Playing Jordan requires almost non-reaction for much of the show, but Jones makes sure we know he is simmering there on stage. What he achieves in stillness and occasional monotone, elicits miles of emotions from us as we watch.

Ok, so there is one plot point I’ll give away in closing. The Lilliputians do in fact discover and get to use the number five. So in that spirit, I’ll reveal the No. 5 thing that we know from this show - this certainly isn’t a musical for everyone. Not even for all musical lovers. But for those of us thrilled by wild creativity in service of risky, new, meaningful yet funny as hell theatrical experience, Small Ball is (forgive me) a slam dunk.

Small Ball continues through May 13 at MATCH, 3400 Main. For information, call 713-521-4533 or visit Pay what you can.

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Jessica Goldman was the theater critic for CBC Radio in Calgary prior to joining the Houston Press team. Her work has also appeared in American Theatre Magazine, Globe and Mail and Alberta Views. Jessica is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.
Contact: Jessica Goldman