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Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2011

'Lombardi' a Winner for Milwaukee Rep

Theater Review

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Vince Lombardi was just a man, after all. But in many ways, he was larger than life, especially when it came to turning a losing Green Bay Packers team into a successful franchise.

Winning, however, came with a cost; he died at age 57 from colon cancer, putting the game before his own health. But for Lombardi, the man and the coach, winning was not just everything, “it was the only thing.”

Lombardi
the play opened the Milwaukee Rep's new season, following a successful Broadway run last fall that was timed perfectly to coincide with this generation's Packers Super Bowl win.

The play, based on Wisconsin native and Pulitzer Prize winner David Maraniss' book When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi, has been adapted by another Wisconsin native, director Eric Simonson. The story is set in 1965—Lombardi has been head coach of the Packers since 1959, and enjoyed great success, but the team has failed to qualify for the championship game for two straight years—but also uses flashbacks to focus on other key moments, such as Lombardi's move to Green Bay as head coach.

Director Sanford Robbins makes the most of the thrust stage (it was in the round on Broadway) and adds more action with the use of background football players and cheerleaders. But the real strength of Lombardi lies in the stellar acting of the main six-member cast. Arthur Lazalde (Jim Taylor) and Reese Madigan (Paul Hornung) shine in their respective roles along with Cameron Knight as Dave Robinson, whose first recollection of the legendary coach is “this little squatty dude.”

And that “little squatty dude” comes roaring to life, literally, as Lee E. Ernst fully inhabits the persona of Lombardi, including his New Yorkish accent. While we see more of the coach than the personal side of the man, Ernst transforms into Lombardi before our very eyes. As Lombardi's tough-edged wife, Marie, Angela Iannone hits all the marks perfectly, from her deadpan comebacks to her own touching terms of endearment with the little big guy. Gerard Neugent ably rounds out the storyline as a Look magazine reporter, Michael, who has come to do a story. Even his life is transformed by the football legend.

“Winning is an attitude. Losing is a part of life. It doesn't mean we have to like it,” the coach stresses to those within earshot.

With Lombardi, there's plenty to like, especially the nostalgic feeling of a place and time when pride still indeed mattered. Lombardi has been extended through Nov. 20 in the Rep's Quadracci Powerhouse, located in the Patty & Jay Baker Theater Complex. For more information, call 414-224-9490 or visit www.milwaukeerep.com
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