“Bounce: The Basketball Opera,” which has been in development for three years with the University of Kentucky Opera Theatre and New York-based Ardea Arts, had it’s world premiere performance Friday night on the basketball court of the outreach and recreation center at Calvary Baptist Church, and yes, Ansel Elgort was there — more on that in a bit. The show has two more performances this weekend, Saturday night and Sunday afternoon.
The Calvary court was exactly the kind of venue the show was conceived for. Director and show creator Grethe Barrett Holby, known for her innovative direction of time-honored and new works, wanted the show played on a basketball court to give it a larger number of potential venues to play and make it more inviting to new audiences.
You could also say intriguing.
Around 450 fans — it is fair to say UK Opera has a healthy number of fans — packed onto bleachers in the gym like the game night it was, not knowing what exactly to expect at the downbeat/tip-off.
What we got was a story. A high school basketball team came tantalizingly close to winning the championship last year. Now, after one of the rank-and-file players had a growth spurt and developed some skills, the team thinks they have a chance to win it all. But some familiar villains, ego and jealousy, threaten to pull the team apart.
Ike “The Flight” Harris (Phillip Gay) starts to believe his hype as the new star, and former team captain TJ “The Future” King (Blake Denson) does not like sharing the spotlight. The story is inspired by the myth of Icarus, about a young man who, in his arrogance, flew too close to the sun and fell back to earth. You could say the story applies to both young men, at certain points in the story.
And in this setting the story is effectively told, the gym floor sometimes becoming the hallways of the high school (with a super-shallow student body), a family kitchen or a classroom. There are several games depicted, with commentary from Fox Sports 1 and ESPN contributor Troy Press and color from the familiar voice of Kentucky Sports Radio’s Matt Jones — amazingly missing UK’s season opener for this performance. The music for these sequences is by Holby’s son, “The Fault in Our Stars” and “Baby Driver” star Ansel Elgort, who also has a music career as a singer, DJ and EDM producer, and it flows naturally into the show.
Now, is this opera, if your framework for the term is, say, traditional Verdi and Puccini operas? No. It is a blend of opera, theater, musical theater, and site-specific theater.
In the course of the two act — four quarter — show, you hear hints of “Rent,” “Hamilton” (particularly is Seth Ibarrondo’s performance as the scene-setting Poet) even “Porgy and Bess” in Glen Roven’s music. The opera singers, from Gay to UK Opera standouts such as Denson, Clark Davis, and Ben Boutell get to show their roof-raising chops, as well as UK Theatre’s Susanna White as the femme fatale Sabrina. But Holby approached this show believing there is room for modern American sounds in opera, just as the contemporary music of eras past informed operas we now find iconic. So we also get things like Patrice E. Turner’s rousing gospel number, and we’ve gotta say that in one scene, Denson does a remarkably seamless transition from solid operatic bass to rap.
In some ways, this is still a work in progress. I am sure Holby and book writer Charles R. Smith Jr. — the words also got a Kentucky touch from Frank X Walker — were taking notes on where transitions lagged and dialogue dragged. The logistics of a basketball court as a stage still seemed to challenge the production, though not as much as you might think. One nagging point: For a character who was supposed to have almost lead the team to a championship, Future seemed a bit too average to below on the court. When he sunk a lay up late in the second half, a lady behind me commented, “he finally made a shot.” Not quite convincing as a once or current team leader, though props to many in the main and supporting cast for some nice basketball moments, including a few 3’s.
The show has elements that are nice for its travel potential.: Roles like the color commentator can inject local flavor and participation from the sports community. Jones’ amusing and realistic commentary included references to UK stars Tony Delk and Tyler Ulis, and he and Press gamely navigated a few basketball moments that didn’t go the way they were supposed to. The show can also work with colors — the original red of the home team in the show was switched to blue for obvious reasons — to give it a home feel.
Certainly Elgort will not show up to every production, but it was undeniably cool having the movie star and the rest of the talented Elgort-Holby family in the house Friday night. Elgort posed for some selfies with fans before the show and at halftime/intermission, and it appeared the Lexington fans were enthusiastic but respectful.
In any event, the energy in the room was electric Friday night, as if the audience was in Rupp Arena or Memorial Coliseum. The billing and the parameters of the event left viewers with a lot of questions going in, but what was ultimately delivered was what had made opera and musical theater endure for centuries: a good story that connected with the audience and some terrific, even memorable music. And it happened in Lexington, on a night both Cats basketball teams were playing.
If you go
“Bounce: A Basketball Opera”
What: World premiere production presented by the University of Kentucky Opera Theatre
When: 7:30 p.m. Nov. 11; 2 p.m. Nov. 12
Where: Calvary Baptist Church Recreation Outreach Center, 150 E. High St.
Tickets: $18 adults, $9 students