Vince Lombardi—coach, husband, father, man—comes to emotionally resonant life in Lombardi, Eric Simonson’s powerful 2010 Broadway biodrama whose terrific West Coast Premiere at North Hollywood’s The Group Rep might turn even sports-hating theatergoers into football buffs. It certainly made a Lombardi fan out of me.
Compacting a 544-page biography (David Maraniss’s When Pride Still Mattered: A Life Of Vince Lombardi) into a 90-minute play is no easy task, yet this is precisely what Simonson has achieved, introducing us to a then fifty-two-year-old Vince (Bert Emmett) through the eyes of the 20something Look Magazine reporter sent to snowy Wisconsin to interview the Green Bay Packers head coach and find out how he turned a team of losers into NFL (and Super Bowl) champs.
Aiding the fictional Michael McCormick (Troy Whitaker) in his task are Vince’s deep-loving/long-suffering wife Marie (Julia Silverman) and a trio of Packers superstars: “Golden Boy” running back Paul Hornung (Ian Stanley), African-American linebacker Dave Robinson (Steven West), and rising fullback Jim Taylor (Christopher Hawthorn).
Through a series of heated interviews and illuminating flashbacks, Lombardi The Play lets us get to know Lombardi The Man, warts and all, including the coach’s tendency to explode at the slightest provocation, something reporter Michael will soon experience up-close-and-personal.
Flashbacks reveal Vince’s chagrin at being forty-five and still in search of that illusive head coaching position, the thrill of the phone call from Green Bay that turned frustration into fame, the exhausting training regimen imposed by Vince on his players, and the Lombardi “Power Sweep” that became a Packers trademark and the key to their five NFL championships and two Super Bowl wins.
Playwright Simonson packs plenty of punch into Lombardi’s compelling hour-and-a-half, including Vince’s significant role in the then burgeoning Civil Rights Movement. (Lombardi insisted that the Packers only stay in hotels—and that his players only frequent watering holes—in which his entire team was welcome regardless of color, even in the integration-resistant South.)
A contract negotiation scene between Vince and hotshot fullback Jim (whose insistence on being paid his fair share of the Packers pot foreshadows today’s multi-million-dollar superstar salaries) makes for one of Lombard’s most fascinating flashback sequences.
And if you thought that Vince Lombardi’s oft-quoted “Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing” originated from the coach’s lips and not John Wayne’s, Lombardi will set you straight.
Trivia tidbits aside, it’s in fiery scenes between quintessential Italian-Jersey couple Vince and Marie and in others that pit old-school coach Vince against whippersnapper journalist Michael (each with his own father-son baggage) that Lombardi becomes so much more than just another football story.
Gregg T. Daniel, hot off the success of the Antaeus Company’s Stage Raw Award-winning Wedding Band: A Love/Hate Story In Black And White, directs Lombardi with power and pizzazz, coaxing splendid performances from an all-around stellar cast.
Audience members who recall the real Vince Lombardi may find themselves blinking twice to convince themselves that it’s actor Emmett they’re seeing onstage and not the real Vince come back to life, so authentic is the Lombardi star’s transformation and so rich is his work on the Lonny Chapman Theatre stage.
Group Rep treasure Silverman vanishes inside Marie’s tough but tender skin, giving us a wife who can give as good as she gets but remains Vince’s number one champion when the chips are down.
Recalling a young Tom Hanks or Timothy Hutton, a pitch-perfect Whitaker commands the stage as Michael, through whose eyes we get to look back and discover the man who changed a young reporter’s life.
Last but not least are Lombardi’s Packers, each one convincing us that he is indeed the star athlete we must believe him to be. Stanley’s weathered but still hot-wired Paul Hornung, West’s quietly dignified mountain of a Dave Robinson, and Hawthorn’s complex, combustible Jim Taylor are all terrific creations, the latter making an impressive professional debut.
Angela M. Eads’ period costumes (including some authentic vintage Packers jerseys) and J. Kent Inasy’s lighting are both topnotch as is Steve Shaw’s sound design, one that integrates a ‘50s/‘60s musical soundtrack with appropriate sports-related effects. I’m less fond of Chris Winfield’s rather ordinary looking scenic design, one which relies on projections to set the scene and requires much pushing around of furniture between Lombardi’s multiple scenes. (To director Daniel’s great credit, these scene changes are executed with inventive flair.) As for the brassy platinum blonde bob plopped onto Marie’s head, a professional trim might be worth the expense.
Drina Durazo is producer. Mikel Parraga-Wills is assistant director and Haley Miller assistant to the director. Dialect coaching kudos go to Glenda Morgan Brown. Christopher Ackerman is videographer.
Whether you know as little as this reviewer did about Vince Lombardi’s life upon entering the Lonny Chapman Theatre or you can quote football statistics as prodigiously as Look reporter Michael McCormick, Eric Simonson’s riveting Lombardi makes for a fascinating eye-opener.
Touchdown for The Group Rep!
The Group Rep, Lonny Chapman Theatre, 10900 Burbank Boulevard, North Hollywood.
August 9, 2105
Photos: Doug Engalla