I have been told that San Diego and basketball are a winning combination right now. There may be a chance people who tell me this are referencing the San Diego Aztecs currently being undefeated (as of this publication) but I choose to believe that they are referring to the winning play THE GREAT LEAP currently playing at the Cygnet Theatre through February 16th.
Set in San Francisco in 1989 the show follows Saul (Manny Fernandes) a college basketball coach preparing to take his team to China when a neighborhood basketball champ named Manford (Scott Keiji Takeda) appears to try to convince Saul to let him got to China on the team. Saul is reluctant, at first but Manford has the tenacity and the shot accuracy to convince Saul he’s too valuable to leave in the States. Saul needs the win to stay on as the coach at the school after several losing seasons.
This “friendship game” has more competition than its name may convey; since Saul’s team will be playing the Chinese team headed by their coach Wen (Edward Chen). Saul has prior been to China in 1971 and his team found the competition easy to defeat, but Wen took Saul’s advice, and the not so subtle instruction from the People’s Republic of China to make the team the best, and now they pose a formidable challenge.
Fernandes as Saul is very funny as the All American coach who believes in his team’s superiority and his own bravado enough that it never occurs to him that there might be tall players on the Chinese basketball team. Fernandes really shines in a second act monologue telling his players what not to do while in China.
Chen is equally engaging as the polar opposite of Saul; his character is contemplative, strategic, and is the quiet heart at the center of the play, as his emotions and history are revealed.
Their characters and cultural differences are summed up best in this exchange from the top of the show about how to play the game. Wen explains the payers don’t take a shot because they don’t want to miss and that they believe “You have to wait your turn.”
An exasperated Saul replies ‘It is always your turn.”
Takeda is incredibly likable as the scrappy and talented Manford who isn’t above finding ways around the rules to get what and where he wants. His character is of both worlds, both brashly American and yet still influenced by the Chinese culture of his late mother.
Keiko Green rounds out the cast as Connie, a family friend who is looking out for Manford after his mother’s death, even if it seems that neither he or Saul is that concerned by him going to China. Green brings some needed love and logic in equal doses to the narrative.
Written by Lauren Yee, who also wrote CAMBODIAN ROCK BAND that just closed at the La Jolla Playhouse, THE GREAT LEAP explores ambition, and where cultural and political loyalty meets their limits. Directed by Rob Lutfy the play keeps the momentum going and the energy high, even creating some of that last-minute buzzer tension every good sports story requires.
The basketball-style court scenic design by Yi-Chien Lee includes 18 basketballs which turn out to be a pivotal number for the play in more ways than one. Blake McCarty provides phenomenal projection design and news clips, and the lighting by Minjoo Kim compliments the production and the projections for greater impact. Sound design by Melanie Chen Cole helps build out the atmosphere and tension as well. Shout out to stage manager Heather M. brose for running all of those cues as well, there is a lot going on throughout this show.
The climax of the show connects to an iconic moment in history that for some may feel like a slam dunk but may feel like a miss for others.
THE GREAT LEAP is an entertaining and thought-provoking way of combining history, politics, culture, and basketball. Don’t wait until the final buzzer to see this show.
THE GREAT LEAP is playing at the Cygnet Theatre through February 16th. For ticket and showtime information go to www.cygnettheatre.com