Friday 16 April 2021
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First Look review: Steppenwolf’s “The Great Leap” is a show about basketball, identity and politics that you don’t want to miss

By Michael Dritto

Playing at: Steppenwolf Theatre (1650 N. Halsted) in the Upstairs Theatre. Performances run through Oct. 20.

Basic storyline: Growing up with a love for basketball, a young but talented kid from Chinatown (Glenn Obrero) fights his way onto the University of San Francisco’s basketball team when he finds out that they will be traveling to compete against the best that communist China has to offer in the midst of rising tensions during the student protests in the 1980s.  With each character having something to prove, The Great Leap explores cultural barriers, political risks and personal sacrifices.

What stood out: What didn’t stand out? The acting, the directing, the writing, the set design, the lighting design. This show was so well rounded, and each aspect of the show was executed spectacularly.

The space was arranged in a runway style, with the stage running down the middle of the audience, splitting it in half. With the stage being an actual basketball court — the walls were painted with team colors, with big LED screens on either side of the court — it was clear we weren’t just watching a show, we were sitting courtside for a game. Even the intermission was more reminiscent of halftime at a game, as hype music was synchronized to a light show and graphics on the LED screens.

Now while the space itself did an excellent job setting up the environment and tone for the show, the lighting design is what really helped push the play forward. Whether a directional choice from Jesca Prudencio or a lighting choice from Keith Parham, projectors were placed directly above the stage that projected Tron-like lasers that established movement, transitions and locations during the show. The brilliant effect really helped create a cinematic result that added so much.

The small ensemble, consisting of Glenn Obrero, Deanna Myers, Keith Kupferer and James Seol, was excellently cast. Each member helped to elevate the quick dialogue and punchy humor and had the ability to turn on a dime without pulling punches for big dramatic moments and while tackling heavy political topics.

Final thoughts: The Great Leap is like watching an ’80s basketball movie on stage. Entertaining, fast-paced and thought-provoking all against the backdrop of a thrilling showdown on the court. Everything leads to a series of events you just don’t see coming. The Great Leap is a great show that comes highly recommended.