Lombardi lives — on stage at The Rep
A star-studded tailgate bash, loaded with Packer mystique, preceded the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre’s opening of Lombardi Friday evening (Oct. 14). The tailgate, complete with a Packer Harley, “Saint Vince,” the Championship Belt, brats and beer created an electric atmosphere. The show and its special guests topped it.
Regular theater-goers and first-time patrons alike can enjoy Lombardi. The 1 hour and 45 minutes of Eric Simonson’s play, directed by Sanford Robbins, flew by like a Paul Hornung power sweep to the left.
Lombardi, which incorporates vintage film clips as well as live action, takes the audience into Vince Lombardi’s life, on the field and at home. It shows his passion, his intensity, his motivation and his shortcomings. He was hard-nosed, not only to his players but also to everyone around him. Yet his loyalty to those around him was unequaled. Those close to Vince Lombardi understood that he would accept only their best efforts. Lombardi knew mistakes were inevitable and had to be accepted; but he admits that sometimes he could focus on nothing but the mistakes while watching game films.
The play focuses on several key people in Lombardi’s life. Simonson employs the device of a reporter (Michael McCormick, played by Gerard Neugent) coming to Green Bay to live in the coach’s home for a week, to research an article on the real Vince Lombardi (strikingly portrayed by Lee E. Ernst). The reporter quickly strikes up a friendship with Lombardi’s wife, Marie (brilliantly played by Angela Iannone). She is to Lombardi’s household what Lombardi is to his players. Neither Vince nor Marie backs down to anyone, yet each knows his or her place. An example of tough love could not have come across better on stage. Ernst and Iannone dominate their roles, much like the Packers dominated professional football during Lombardi’s turn at the helm.
People think Lombardi yelled all the time. He didn’t see it that way: “I’M NOT YELLING, THIS IS HOW I TALK,” Ernst yelled. McCormick runs with the volume issue when he imagines Lombardi as a bank manager: “YOU WANT A LOAN?! WHAT MAKES YOU THINK YOU SHOULD GET A LOAN?!”
The play shows Lombardi’s relationships with three of his players, fullback Jim Taylor (Arthur Lazalde), halfback Paul Hornung (Reese Madigan), and defensive end/outside linebacker Dave Robinson (Cameron Knight). Lombardi developed special relationships, built on mutual respect, with all of them — even though he had his issues with Hornung and Taylor.
Of course Lombardi despised Hornung’s partying. Yet the coach showed confidence in Hornung, not only as a player but also as a person. Hornung swore he would never play for a better coach than Lombardi. Both the coach and Marie had soft spots for the running back.
With Taylor, the press was the issue. Early in his career, Taylor said some things to reporters that Lombardi hated, and Lombardi tried to muzzle him after that. It wasn’t easy.
After the show, the stars came out. NFL Hall-of-Famers Bart Starr and Paul Hornung joined the actors who portrayed them. They each had stories to tell and captivated the audience. Starr said that the Rep’s Lombardi is “absolutely tremendous.” Hornung said, “I saw the Broadway production, and this one was a hell of a lot better!” And Packer/Rep Nation erupted.
Note from the Sideline: Lombardi was to have its Midwest premiere in Chicago. Travesty! But managing director Dawn Helsing Wolters and artistic director Mark Clements caught wind of that big no-no and fought tooth and nail to bring Lombardi to Wisconsin, where people bleed green and gold, first.
Due to unprecedented ticket sales, the Milwaukee Repertory Theater has extended Lombardi through Nov. 20. For times, dates and tickets, call the Rep’s box office, 414 224-9490 or visit the company’s website.