top of page

Cleveland Play House’s ‘The Great Leap’ is a behind the back spinning slam dunk

“The Great Leap” title of Lauren Lee’s dramatic sports fantasy now on stage at Cleveland Play House at Playhouse Square has a double meaning. In China it is reminiscent of “The Great Leap Forward” which was an unprecedented economic and social disaster from 1958-1962 where millions starved to death. In basketball terms it references the high flying jump needed to score the “Slam Dunk.”

Manford (Eric Cheung) is a precocious fast talking 17 year old bent on joining the San Francisco University’s basketball team who is headed to China during a time of cultural exchanges to play Beijing university. He has sneaked in and cornered Coach Saul in order to make the team still wearing a rumpled suit from his mom’s funeral.

While Manford has the street creds (taking his high school team to the finals) he lacks self control, a characteristic that the Coach values. In desperation, Manford blurts out,“I am the most relentless person you have ever met and if you have met someone more relentless than me, tell me, tell me and I will meet them and I will find a way to become even more relentless than them.”He then challenges the coach that if he can make 100 free throws in a row the coach will put him on the team. He makes 99.

The action then shifts back to 1971 and Coach Saul (David Mason) is in Communist China to teach American basketball techniques at Beijing University. Helping him through the cultural mine field is Wen Chang (Reuben Uy) who is a low-level party member chosen for his English skills. Wen Chang’s job is to assist Saul as his personal translator and assistant coach while keeping an eye on this newly arrived American for the Chinese government.

Wen Chang is shocked and troubled by Saul’s unfiltered speech where streams of profanity roll off his tongue with little provocation or effort on his part. He is a cussing machine. While basketball is huge in China, having been introduced by Christian missionaries in 1895, American style basketball is a totally foreign aspect of the game. Basketball was one of the few Western contributions allowed to be practiced as Chairman Mao was a fan of the game. In 1971 China it is much more genteel with players apologizing for the rare occurrences when they foul their opponents.

Saul takes Wen Chang on a crash course of rough and tumble convincing his counterpart that for China to enter the world basketball stage they must play as their opponents play...for keeps. As Saul departs China having named Wen Chang as coach he makes an off handed remark that “China will never beat an American basketball team.” This innocent remark sets in motion a slow burn in China.

Eighteen years later Wen Chang has recruited seven foot plus players from Northern China and have taught them American style basketball. The invitation goes out to Saul, now coach at San Francisco University who is coming off a disastrous last season, for a “friendship exhibition game.” With one of his key players injured, Coach Saul decides to take a chance on Manford. First he needs Manford’s cousin’s permission but it turns out that she is simply a friend and no relation. Somehow, Manford is able to leave the country due to his forging his late mom’s signature.

The team arrives in China at the height of the Tienanmen Square protests. During the long rush hour bus ride to their first practice Coach Saul exhorts his team to stay out of trouble. Telling them that between the Chinese authorities and the world press covering the event they will be under the microscope. It is then that he discovers that Manford is not on the bus. He is instead wandering Tienanmen Square and simply by his presence, and his San Francisco University sweatshirt has started a group chant of U.S.A...U.S.A...U.S.A.

As you enter the Outcalt Theatre you are simply overwhelmed by the stage set. It is a basketball half court complete with baskets and lights. Scene designer Yu Shibagaki has gone to great lengths to set the basketball vibe. Costumer Samantha C. Jones transcends time and cultures to outfit everyone in appropriate garb. Michael Boll uses all sorts of lighting tricks from the full out glare of a fully lit court to intimate spot lighting to set certain moods. T. Paul Lowry uses video projections to their full advantage to carry the story forward. His Tienanmen Square segment is masterful.

As for the actors, they are superb. David Mason (Coach Saul) is the epitome of the profane college coach who will stoop to any length to motivate his team. Eric Cheung (Manford) is wound up tighter than a Timex watch in a bucket full of magnets. He leans into his part full throttle. Reuben Uy (Wen Chang) is the perfect choice as the party ‘s front man as he espouses the indoctrination that has been drilled into him since childhood. Amanda Kuo (Connie) does a fine turn as Manford’s “cousin” but sadly her role is underwritten. What stage presence she has is very well done.

“The Great Leap” is a production that builds by degrees to a surprising climax. From the totally “on” stage set, to the authentic costumes, to the spot on lighting...everything works in tandem to carry us forward to an exciting finish. All of the pieces of the puzzle fit together with surgical precision to give us a totally clear picture. See this show!

“The Great Leap” will be on stage in the Outcalt Theatre at Playhouse Square through November 20, 2022. For tickets and more information go to call (216) 241-6000.


  • Facebook B&W
  • Twitter B&W
Who is Mark Horning?

Over the course of my life I have worked a variety of jobs including newspapers, retail camera sales and photography. Eight years ago I embarked on yet another career as writer. This included articles concerning sports and cultural events in Cleveland, Ohio as well reviews of the many theatrical productions around town. These days are spent photographing professional dance groups, theater companies and various galas and festivals as well as attending various stage performances and posting reviews about them.  

bottom of page