Presenting ‘Lombardi’: Weidner Center brings Hall of Fame coach ‘home’ in first self-produced play

Andrew Kruse-Ross

andrew kruse-ross | lombardi | feb. 2019

The Weidner Center for the Performing Arts pays tribute to the 100th anniversary of the Green Bay Packers, bringing “Lombardi" to the Fort Howard Hall stage for an extended run beginning on February 22 and running through March 10.

“Lombardi," written by Academy Award winner Eric Simonson, and based on the best-selling biography “When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi," written by Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Maraniss, opened on Broadway in 2010 and starred Dan Lauria and Judith Light in the roles of Vince and Marie Lombardi.

Although “Lombardi" has been offered at Wisconsin venues previously, Green Bay has yet to host a professional production of the show based upon one of its most celebrated personas.

“Green Bay's never had a professionally produced production of 'Lombardi,'" says Weidner Center Executive Director, Kelli Strickland. “That is just so very wrong."

To make it happen, the Weidner begins a new chapter by stepping up to offer “Lombardi" as the venue's first fully self-produced production in its 25-year history — moving the Weidner away from the traditional role of a presenting house and into that of a producing one.

“I find that the repertoire that's available to performing arts centers starts to take on a sameness," says Strickland. “And I thought, 'In what ways can we serve our specific community beyond bringing a piece that is kind of making the rounds? What can we do that's special?'"

In fully producing “Lombardi," the Weidner is able to offer Green Bay audiences a show it otherwise might not have access to see, as no touring productions of “Lombardi" exist.

“For me, personally, it felt like the right piece coming into this role new and finding something that I strongly identified with and that I felt the community strongly identified with."

Strickland, who comes from a producing background — serving most recently as the executive director of Chicago theatre company The Hypocrites — says “Lombardi" will be presented in the intimate Fort Howard Hall, which is being retrofitted specifically for this production by the Weidner's team.

“It's a major build. They're laying a full deck on the floor and retrofitting the space with a proscenium. The whole space is being radically transformed."

Fort Howard Hall's relatively close confines resemble those of the theatrical performances that sparked Strickland's appreciation for theatrical arts years ago.

“The way I fell in love with theatre was actually not with great big musicals with a proscenium arch where everyone is far away and looking out at you, I really came up in a tradition of that storefront, in-your-face, Chicago-style theatre where the whole place is pulsing with the energy of it. That's a part of the fun."

Strickland points out that no seat in Fort Howard Hall is more than 75 feet away from the performers, ensuring that the nuanced action of “Lombardi" is broadcast to everyone in the audience.

“There's something that's really compelling about this story and about this man and his marriage," says Strickland. “But it's a difficult script. It's a challenging story in terms of making it theatrically vibrant."

Charged with bringing that story to life, Strickland has turned to Artistic Director Greg Vinkler.

Vinkler has an intimate knowledge of the script as he directed the Peninsula Players' production of “Lombardi" in 2012.

“The story is very accessible; it's very straightforward. Eric, the playwright, wanted to explore what drove Vince Lombardi to be the kind of man he is," says Vinkler. “We see him coming to the Packers and turning them into a championship team … this play kind of centers around this young writer who comes to do an article about Lombardi."

In the process of interviewing Lombardi, Vinkler says this young writer makes a decision to “become his own man—his own writer," learning from Lombardi much in the same way that his players have.

In presenting the inspiring and humorous “Lombardi" to Green Bay audiences and bringing the story home, as it were, there is perhaps some added pressure to get things right.

“When I was casting it I was very aware that so many people in Green Bay actually knew these people and actually, two of the players (Paul Hornung and Dave Robinson) are still alive. I wanted to try and be within the ballpark of how they actually looked but in the end, it's their acting chops that really matter."

The late Jim Taylor is also portrayed in the play.

Fitting his criteria, Vinkler's first choice for the roles of Vince and Marie Lombardi were Neil Friedman and Carmen Roman whom he cast in the 2012 production of the show for Peninsula Players.

“They were terrific, so when this production came up they were the first people I thought of and they're extremely excited about it."

Vinkler, who says he found Maraniss' biography of Lombardi “extremely inspiring," hopes that inspiration will translate to Green Bay audiences.

“I hope a lot of the audience comes away feeling they know a little bit more about who Lombardi actually was and the kind of things that drove him.

“I think people know his name, the trophy is named after him, they certainly know the players that are in the show, but I think it'll be nice for them to spend an hour and a half or two hours with this guy and really get a feeling for what he was like."

And with its first fully self-produced show, Strickland says the Weidner hopes to take the first step in starting new conversations between the venue and its audiences.

“For me, art and culture really lives and breathes in the conversations that happen around it, not just in the transaction of handing in a ticket and leaving," says Strickland. “I think having these artists here for a longer period of time and having made this place specifically for this community is a good attempt to get that conversation started."

“Lombardi" runs at the Weidner's Fort Howard Hall Feb. 22 – March 10. For tickets visit WeidnerCenter.com.

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