Monday, Oct. 24, 2011

Celebration Over Insight

Another look at The Milwaukee Rep’s LOMBARDI

By Russ Bickerstaff
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The Packers had just finished a game that put them at 7-0 on the season—a game that secured them on the top of the league for at least a couple more weeks. It was a Sunday night—last night and the Quadracci Powerhouse Theatre was filled with Packers apparel. It didn’t look like a typical Rep theatre audience, but Lombardi isn’t a typical Milwaukee Rep show. 

 

If they’re looking to expand their audience base, the Rep certainly found an excellent show for it. Fresh from its mutation into a big Broadway drama co-produced by the NFL, Lombardi makes its way to Milwaukee courtesy of a Milwaukee rep production filled with familiar faces.

The energy inside the theatre is completely different from a normal Rep show in a number of different ways. There are huge banners hanging up over the sidewalk leading into the theatre complex advertising Miller Lite-sponsored tailgates for a few given performances of the show. The logo of the official beer of the Green Bay Packers wallpapers the lobby of the Quadracci, accompanying the Packers logo almost enough  times to feel kind of like walking into a much, much, much smaller version of Lambeau Field.  

Walk into the theatre and the feeling is amplified quite a bit. Green and gold packers banners with the vintage logo of the team hang over a set that Linda Buchanan has designed to look like a strange approximation of a football field with turf-like green carpet and two huge screens that help establish the setting. And though it doesn’t capture the full immensity of the NFL, the set and design of the Milwaukee Rep’s production of Lombardi feel big enough to feel like . . . well . . . like kind of a big party at Curly’s Pub at least . . . furniture pops out of the turf and suddenly there you are at Lombardi’s place. A desk slides out of nowhere and there you are in his office. A pool table pops-up and there you are hanging out with the players in a Lombardi-approved bar. It’s a very, very slick production.

The script itself, though not without its charm, is a bit of a disappointment. Eric Simonson also wrote Lombardi: The Only Thing—a show which debuted in Madison a few years back and had a toroughly satisfying staging by Next Act Theatre some time later. This Lombardi lacks the depth and insight into the mind of one of the most legendary coaches in history. Stripped of some of the more deeper and intimate moments (and three out of four words taken out of the title) Lombardi lacks much depth. Much like UWM’s recent Sins of Sor Juana, Lombardi is more of a celebration of a cultural hero than an in-depth analysis of him. In the title role, Lee Ernst does a pretty good impression of Lombardi, but without having much depth to bring to the stage from the script, he comes across as kind of a Vince Lombardi cartoon character. Yes, he has his serious dramatic moments an array of different moods and emotions to bring across, but without a terribly introspective plot, it ends up being more of a celebration of the man than a look into who he was.  

Some of the other performances here are pretty good. Angela Iannone is charming as Lombardi’s wife. Gerard Neugent plays well as both narration and central conflict of the play in the role of a reporter asked to write a story on Lombardi. The rest of the staging is a little . . . disorienting. To their credit, the Rep had cast Reese Madigan in the role of legendary halfback Paul Hornung. Madigan is a solidly good actor, but more than that, he looks like an athelete with his shirt off. This is actually kind of a bigger deal than it sounds like. I remember watching a production of Take Me Out with the Milwaukee Chamber Theatre . . . it was remarkably well-acted and everything, but a play that’s supposed to be about Major League Baseball players, that also featured a lot of locker room scenes also featured a group of actors who did NOT look like professional athletes. Madigan looked believable as a pro athlete circa 1965 . . . and the other actors in main roles here looked pretty formidable as well. Arthur Lazalde is kind of towering as fullback Jim Taylor. If you really want to get technical about it (and I’m sure there are those who do . . . ) Jim Taylor was only 6’ tall. Hornung? 6’2”. Vince Lombardi? 5’8” (okay, admittedly that was in high school and he was bound to have compressed a little bit with advancing  age, but . . .)  In spite of the relative heights of the men, Lazalde seems to be towering over everyone else onstage. Real believable physicality in the role of an athlete, but kind of out of synch with history.

Pesky little incongruous details aside, the Rep’s Lombardi  does a really good job as a celebration of the legendary coach . . . and with a couple of slides at the end taken from last year’s Super Bowl celebration,  it’s difficult for any fan of the team not to feel energized by it. (Okay, so elevating Ernst on a pedastal with the shots of the Lombardi Statue at Lambeau was a bit much . . . ) The audience for this show was energized on an evening after a Green Bay Packer win over the Minnesota Vikings at the Metrodome.

It’s interesting to see the show on a season that seems to be echoing some of the past. Lombardi talks about the danger of an empty win . . . about the challenges of coaching an undefeated team. There are a few moments shared around a pool table with a few guys concerning grievances in the early days of the NFL Players Association echo recent issues that hadn’t been fully resolved until this past July 25th. In it’s best moments, this Lombardi is a very topical look at some of the issues facing football today…but those are fleeting moments in what otherwise feels like a pep-rally for the team to beat in the NFL—giving some of the background on a team likely to do ridiculously well this season again.

The Milwaukee Rep’s production of Lombardi runs through November 20th. For ticket reservations, call 414-224-9490.

 

 


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