March Madness is an annual phenomenon that is about buckets and brackets, free throws and personal fouls. You drive the lane and swish a three-pointer. Emotional depth and curtain calls are not in the vocabulary.
But March Madness in Milwaukee includes theater this year, as Cotter Smith brings his one-man show about legendary Marquette coach and unconventional philosopher Al McGuire back to town for a two-night stand at the Marcus Center. Now titled "Coach," it will play Vogel Hall March 28-29.
The booking is particularly appropriate, because this is the 35th anniversary of Marquette winning the NCAA basketball championship. The title game was McGuire's last as a coach. His fame subsequently grew as a public speaker and television hoops analyst before he died in 2001.
Sportscaster Dick Enberg, McGuire's longtime broadcast partner, wrote a single-character play, originally titled "McGuire," about his charismatic colleague and friend. Loaded with nuggets of the coach's musings, witticisms and stories, the piece was developed at Marquette's Department of Performing Arts. Veteran actor Cotter Smith was cast in the larger-than-life role.
Smith had extensive experience on Broadway and in Hollywood before moving here in 2001 to marry Wauwatosan Heidi Mueller. The actor shuttled back and forth between Milwaukee and the west coast for eight years, working on the large and small screens while also establishing the Cornerstone Theatre here with his wife.
Enberg's play with Smith as McGuire premiered at Marquette's Helfaer Theatre in 2005, and it was such a hit, the show was brought back for another run. Three years ago the actor and his wife moved to New York, where he returned to Broadway, has made a few films, done much television work, and is also busy as a teacher.
During breaks in his schedule, Smith has been taking the McGuire production on the road, performing it in locations as far flung as Las Vegas and Belmont, N.C. "I just have to pack my little bag of clothes, and I can do it almost anywhere," the actor said while chatting by phone last week.
A national booking agency schedules the appearances and suggested the play's titled be changed to "Coach." Enberg and Smith continue to make small changes to the script as the actor hears new anecdotes about the colorful McGuire from people in his audiences.
Although Smith never met the man he has been playing for seven years, he has enjoyed several rewarding experiences with the McGuire family. During one performance, he quickly noticed a fellow in the third row whose face reflected an unusual emotional intensity. "I began focusing on him," the actor said.
Afterwards, the audience member introduced himself as Al's brother Dick, a seven-time NBA all-star in the 1950s who also coached in the league. Al and Dick McGuire are the only brothers in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
Another performance was attended by Al McGuire's sister, who told Smith her grandson, Al's great nephew, was a young actor who had just moved to New York. He is now taking an acting class from Smith, who is teaching at both the New School for Drama and the Stella Adler Studio.
Smith's acting career has been booming since he left Milwaukee. He has been cast in five plays, has a recurring role as a mysterious CIA operative in the CBS series "Person of Interest," was in the HBO film "You Don't Know Jack" with Al Pacino and John Goodman, and has done a number of other movie and television appearances.
"I miss Milwaukee," he said. Speaking for himself and his wife, he continued, "Our days at Cornerstone (Theatre) are such a fond memory for us. It was our baby."
Smith also takes "Coach" to the Weill Center for the Performing Arts in Sheboygan March 30 and the Meyer Theatre in Green Bay March 31.
Damien has been around so long, he was at Summerfest the night George Carlin was arrested for speaking the seven dirty words you can't say on TV. He was also at the Uptown Theatre the night Bruce Springsteen's first Milwaukee concert was interrupted for three hours by a bomb scare. Damien was reviewing the concert for the Milwaukee Journal. He wrote for the Journal and Journal Sentinel for 37 years, the last 29 as theater critic.
During those years, Damien served two terms on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, a term on the board of the association's foundation, and he studied the Latinization of American culture in a University of Southern California fellowship program. Damien also hosted his own arts radio program, "Milwaukee Presents with Damien Jaques," on WHAD for eight years.
Travel, books and, not surprisingly, theater top the list of Damien's interests. A news junkie, he is particularly plugged into politics and international affairs, but he also closely follows the Brewers, Packers and Marquette baskeball. Damien lives downtown, within easy walking distance of most of the theaters he attends.