Hockey Sweater scores as fantastic stage musical
The first thing that struck me about The Hockey Sweater: A Musical is how well Canada’s national winter game lends itself to songand-dance treatment.For starters, skating has a natural flow that suits the art of choreography, even when practised by in-line skaters on a hard-surface stage, as is the case here, instead of ice. Breakaways, crossovers, stops and starts are worked into imaginative routines, while the hockey stick is used for both dramatic punctuation and to emphasize the beat.What’s more, the character-building nature of any team sport supports a narrative of personal growth, the strength of community and working together for a common goal, all of which are addressed in this delightful, family-friendly adaptation of the classic Canadian short story by Quebec author Roch Carrier.Commissioned by Montreal’s Segal Centre to celebrate the centre’s 10th anniversary, Canada’s 150th and Montreal’s 375th, it premièred a year ago on home ice, so to speak, in the hometown of les Canadiens. The current run at the National Arts Centre features a reworked script and three new songs, thanks to investment by the NAC’s National Creation Fund.If you’re used to seeing big, splashy Broadway musicals, you may be wondering how this one compares. Short answer: It’s fantastic. It may not have the top-dollar budget, but the songs are instantly catchy, the cast is incredibly talented, and it’s directed with remarkable precision by Donna Feore, known for her work at Stratford. Also noteworthy are the projected backdrops that frame all scenes with charming representations of the village’s buildings, inside and out.Carrier’s tale is brought to the stage by writers Jonathan Monro and Emil Sher, who have fleshed out the story and put it to music while maintaining its simplicity, which is no small feat for a work set in small-town Quebec in the winter of 1946. Young Roch is played with energy and exuberance by 10-yearold Wyatt Moss, who not only sings, dances and acts, but also executes impressive twirls and flips without appearing breathless.The cast includes seven other boys and girls as teammates, plus nine adults, including Roch’s hockey-hating mother, Anna (played by Claire Lautier), patient coach Gaetan (Scott Beaudin), less patient teacher Mlle. Therrien (Kate Blackburn) and the village priest (Ian Simpson), who harbours his own comically shameful secret. Costume designers Michael Gianfranceso and Louise Bourret deserve a nod, too, for outfitting the women in gorgeous vintage coats and dresses, their hair styled to mid-’40s perfection.The first act covers the story that Carrier recalled from his childhood, describing a life based on church and school, and establishing the significance of hockey to the villagers, including the hero worship of Maurice “The Rocket” Richard. Images of the hockey legend throughout the show make it a respectful tribute to No. 9.When young Roch outgrows his beloved Habs sweater, his mother orders a new one from Mister Eaton, only to receive a blue-andwhite abomination in the mail some weeks later.The original story ends with Carrier praying that God will send moths to destroy the Toronto sweater, but the musical goes deeper with a second act that explores how he manages to come to terms with it. Along the way, there are wonderful scenes, including a rousing gospel number in church and a brilliant operetta built on the teacher’s pleading phone call to Mister Eaton, in which her English is heavily accented.The use of language is a fascinating aspect of the production. As an English-language musical based on a French-language story, there’s an underlying dichotomy that’s never fully resolved. While a French version is reportedly in the works and is sure to be a huge hit in Quebec, this one works to bring the two solitudes together by giving us Anglos a perspective on the francophone experience. Premier Doug Ford of Ontario should consider seeing it.In the end, of course, it’s not the colours you wear or the language you speak that matters. As young Roch learns, it’s about finding the strength to be yourself and realizing, in the words of the priest, that God loves everyone … even the Maple Leafs.
Liam Wignall, left, and Oliver Neudorf in The Hockey Sweater.
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