The treasured Canadian story that spawned an illustrated children’s book and award-winning animated short film receives a breakaway stage adaptation in timely and joyous celebration of Montréal’s 375th anniversary.
Roch Carrier’s 1979 memoir of a young boy growing up in rural Québec in the ’40s has charmed children — and adults — now for nearly four decades, and the all-new musical commissioned and produced by the Segal Centre for Performing Arts under Artistic and Executive Director Lisa Rubin proves to be a generation-transcending affair for both buffs and non-adherents of the national sport alike.
The Hockey Sweater: A Musical recounts the winters of Carrier’s childhood in which he and his Canadiens-obsessed friends lived and longed for one thing and one thing only: hockey. When he outgrows his beloved Maurice “Rocket” Richard’s No. 9 Habs sweater, his mother orders a replacement, but a mail mix-up delivers to his door a dreaded Toronto Maple Leafs jersey instead. Mme Carrier forces her son to wear it, and frustration and fear follow him to the rink as he confronts his peers wearing the frowned upon enemy colours.
Under the masterly direction of Stratford Festival hit-maker Donna Feore, Hockey Sweater has been expanded in this two-hour musical affair by the creative contributions of Emil Sher (Book and Lyrics) and Jonathan Monro (Music and Lyrics). The sung and spoken narrative is delivered by a sprightly cast of seventeen and upheld by a sterling seven-piece live band also led by Monro.
Spearheading the company is Jesse Noah Gruman as a charismatic Young Roch Carrier, with Richard Jutras appearing and engaging as the author in his present-day narrator form. Roch’s provincial world of sport, school, church, and home are filled by Scott Beaudin as Gaétan Ouellette, Kate Blackburn as Mlle Therrien, Ian Simpson as Father Delisle, and Claire Lautier as Mme Carrier, all of whom seize their individual moments in the limelight throughout the production. Andréane Bouladier, Geneviève Dufour, Jean-François Poulin, and Brandon Howard Roy complete the supporting adult ensemble.
Feore is furthermore here credited with her explosive choreography (albeit the show is not particularly dance heavy – likely due to the ages of its pre-teen chorus, who are already under the herculean demands of having to harmoniously perform on skates). The medley of blazing acts include an exuberant gospel number, synchronized chair dancing scene, and a cheeky tango routine executed with verve.
Among the most successful new additions to this original adaptation are the inclusion of the female characters on Roch’s hockey team (as played by Annelise Forbes, Riley O’Donnell, and Berkley Silverman. Drew Davis, Alessandro Gabrielli, Jayden Greig, and Lucas Kalechstein round out the stellar junior lineup.) The kinetic number “We Stick Together” is the unequivocal crowd-pleaser of the night. “Different”, however – an unexpectedly show-stopping duet shared by Roch and his teammate Ginette – registers as particularly eloquent and effective in capturing the musical’s greater messages of identity, acceptance, and belonging.
Indeed, the vital spark of the show is generated and kept aflame by the striking talent and spirit of its young triple-threat actors. Unaffected, joyful, disarming, and refreshingly sincere in performance, they insulate The Hockey Sweater from any possibility of a caustic review.
There are shots that hit the metal pipes, however, as The Hockey Sweater presents itself as one of the more modest musicals in terms of visible production value that the Segal has spawned in recent years.
Although it can be argued that floor space was needed for the pond action, the sets herein are sparse and static. Normal Studio’s exquisite video work can be currently seen around town in projects such as Montréal Symphonique and Cité Mémoire, but in this arena, the projections are also a bit of a helmet-scratcher. The animations are at times wonderfully evocative of Cohen’s book sketches, but the artistry is inconsistent (gyrating cartoon roses and pucks are among the enigmatic imagery that come to mind). The perceived lack of uniformity in the overall design and aesthetics of the production, which attempts to combine warm, classic, period pieces with cold, streamlined, modern elements, makes for an oddly stitched visual.
It rests unclear if the production is a deliberate departure from spectacle, aiming to capture instead the enduring simplicity of Carrier’s original tale. In any case, we can dismiss our aforementioned preoccupations to embrace what may just be a larger metaphor for the “it’s not how you look” moral. This reimagined Hockey Sweater has humongous heart, and its all-star roster passionately wears it on the sleeve.
And, while the piece is not intended to be a political statement, it bears the essence of the Toronto-Montréal rivalry that carries on today, addressing seemingly trivial matters of being born into sports loyalties that are both unquestionable and unswerving. It further depicts the cultural, religious, and linguistic divisions and connections that have existed between the English and French with wit and humour. For non-Canadians seeking to understand Canada, Carrier’s quintessential story is an excellent starting point.
Comedy grounded by conflict at the gut level, The Hockey Sweater is a celebrated new addition to the Canadian musical theatre canon. Presented as part of the official 375mtl programming, the production has been extended at the Segal Centre through November 15th, 2017.
The Segal Centre for Performing Arts presents a World Premiere
THE HOCKEY SWEATER: A MUSICAL
October 19th to November 15th, 2017 at
The Segal Centre for Performing Arts
(5170 chemin de la Côte-Sainte-Catherine)
Tickets: $52 – $66
Group, Senior, Student, Under 30 discounts available.
Box Office: 514.739.7944 | www.segalcentre.org