By Kendra Jones
A musical about the invention of basketball, without an actual, physical basketball…
Not only did The Perfect Game: A Slam Dunk New Musical introduce the start of basketball and capture Jim Naismith’s (Anthony Sagaria) role in his development of the game, but this production also featured a modern-day men’s basketball team, an ex-head coach, and three different love stories.
As a women’s college basketball official, I was excited, but apprehensive, of how this historical moment of the emergence of one of the most popular sports in the world would be showcased.
We are taken to 1891 when Naismith is challenged to produce a new game for a YMCA, and we watch as Naismith emerges to witness the game on a modern-day court. The scenes of Naismith being back in school as a teacher leading a YMCA sports class, thinking up and trying new games, were the most engaging moments. I had never really considered how each sport was brainstormed, practiced, and established. Roles of Naismith himself and students at the YMCA dropped me right into 1891, allowing me to watch from the sidelines as that very first *invisible* basketball fell into that peach basket. Even the yellowed fluorescent lighting made me feel as though I was sitting on those plank floorboards; I could almost hear the pounding and slide of sneakers on worn wood.
While so much of the history was captivating, I questioned the necessity of several other pieces of this story.
A cast of 15 people, not including the live musicians, could have been cut immensely.
Even the pom squad—though they were featured in seemingly nearly every scene, wouldn’t have been missed. I felt as though I even questioned the significance of this modern-day world that Naismith visited. Why was he visiting a gym where a Pom Squad had more importance than the actual team itself? I’m not sure if or how much we even saw the Pom Squad cheering for the Home Team…all their time may have been spent bashing the “Archnemesis.”
I saw several directions this performance could have gone. Rather, it created several threads that never quite came together.
Ex-coach Nancy had quit coaching the girls’ team the previous season after one of her players were severely injured; Nancy came to lead the Pom Squad, and was eventually asked to return to the game as an assistant coach for the boys’ team when Coach Frank became head coach. Of course, a romance was alluded, and the coaches ultimately decided to go on a road trip to scout a potential recruit.
There were moments I found interesting for a variety of reasons: surprising me as unexpected in some cases and in others, seemingly being well-outside of the “family friendly” musical it claimed to be. A musical number on workplace sexual harassment made the older audience chuckle as Pom girls draped their legs over Coach Frank, singing to him about inappropriate behavior while performing extremely inappropriate behavior. But I felt uncomfortable for the row of very young boys–clearly there because their parents imagined a fun story blended into a history lesson for a sport they cherished–in front of me.
On another note–many points of issues in the world of sports were very briefly hinted at, and while they made me believe they would be broached, this was not the case at all. Instead, the focus of the production fell into these love pairings, a Pom Squad’s presence, and the inventor of basketball’s presence in the modern world.
It was only very momentarily—a quick exchange of dialogue—that mentioned women wanting to play basketball upon its invention. But this mark in history was never returned to or discussed further. I questioned when and how the women’s side of game came into play. The absence of a basketball entirely then prompted me to question how the physical ball was decided upon. I wanted the history of the most essential item of the game.
We also learned the sport once did not have coaches–I wanted to be dropped into this history not alluded to–What prompted coaches to be established? Had there not yet been coaches in other sports?
A scene where a referee was paid off to help the “Archnemesis” win against the “Home Team” was never referenced again, and the referees did not even interfere with the outcoming of their game.
These focuses were “said” rather than “shown.” I so wanted to watch the players, or at least Coach Nancy and Coach Frank fall in love with the game. The presentation of the final seconds of the game, captured in extremely slow motion, were comedic and entertaining, but I longed for depth in those final scenes.
Not one, or two, but three romances that seemed completely irrelevant blossomed; even that of Naismith’s own wife, Maude, I wouldn’t have missed….It only prompted an abrupt, emotional outrage from Maude’s ghost after she questioned him after finally being reunited as spirits that he had remarried after her death.
Even the two reporters who I admit, did bring bits of comedy to the stage, admitted their love to each other. I couldn’t help questioning as these bits and bits and bits of exposition and rising conflict continuously arose until the very conclusion of the production. Is this necessary to Basketball’s story? To even this modern-day team’s story? To Nancy’s story?
Directed by Danny Salles; Book, music and lyrics by John Grissmer.
WITH: Anthony Sagaria (Jim Naismith), David Beach (Dr. Luther Gulick), Tyler Belo ( Pat & others), Nick Bernardi ( Coach Frank), Milena J. Comeau (Cheerleader & others), Jesse Lynn Harte (Julie & others), Akina Kitazawa (Cheerleader & others), Alec Ludacka (Frank Mahan & others), Steve McCoy (Dr. Ladd & Coach Roach), Lukas Poost (Lonnie Stagg), Elena Ricardo (Maude Sherman Naismith), Jamal Shuriah (Student & others), Danielle J. Summons (Bobbie), Scott Whipple (Student & others), and EJ Zimmerman (Ex-Coach Nancy).
Creative Team: Casting (Daryl Eisenberg, CSA / Eisenberg Casting; David Goldstein (Scenic Designer); Matthew Solomon (Costume Designer); Andrew Garvis & Jamie Roderick (Co-Lighting Designers); Ashley Marinelli (Choreographer); Russ Kassoff (Arrangements & Music Supervision); Brendan McCann (Production Props); William Spinnato (Production Stage Manager); Miranda Shaffer (Assistant Stage Manager); Tuan Malinowski (Associate Director); and Brian Nelson (Associate Choreographer).
Music Direction by Matthew Stephens; Executive produced and general managed by Visceral Entertainment. Joseph Fusco (Associate Producer).
The Perfect Game: A Slam Dunk New Musical is making its Off-Broadway Premiere for a limited engagement until January 27 at Theatre Row (410 W 42nd Street, New York, NY 10036. The musical features an original book, music and lyrics by John Grissmer.