Hockey Sweater scores as fan­tas­tic stage mu­si­cal

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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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