Starvox, Kintop & TO Live/Bend It Like Beckham: The Musical, music by Howard Goodall, lyrics by Charles Hart, book by Paul Mayeda Berges and Gurinder Chadha, directed by Madeline Paul, Bluma Appel Theatre, Dec. 7, 2019 to Jan. 5, 2020. Tickets available at ticketmaster.ca.
Bend It Like Beckham: The Musical is a pleasant theatrical outing. The production lacks the tension of the original 2002 movie, but it does boast an attractive score and some appealing choreography. In other words, not hot, not cold, just pleasant. While not specifically called family entertainment, the musical is a good fit for soccer-mad kids of any age, especially girls. It’s a show that adults and younger folk can enjoy together.
The 2002 movie, produced, co-written and directed by Gurinder Chadha, was a surprise international hit. It is still, today, the highest grossing soccer sports film of all time. The idea to turn Bend It Like Beckham into a musical came from Chadha herself. She wrote the book with her husband Paul Mayeda Berges, and enlisted Howard Goodall to compose the music and Charles Hart to write the lyrics.
Not surprisingly, Gurinder also directed the musical in London’s West End. The show opened on June 24, 2015, and closed nine months later, picking up the London Critics’ Circle Award for Best British Musical, and earning three other nominations for Best New Musical. This Toronto production is Bend It Like Beckham: The Musical’s North American premiere, and it is an original, made in Canada show.
The story is set in 2001 in Southall, West London, also known as “Little Punjab” or “Little India”. Teenage Jess (Laila Zaidi), who has just finished her A Levels, loves to play soccer with the neighbourhood boys, but her traditional Punjabi Sikh parents (Sorab Wadia and Zorana Sadiq) are appalled. They want her to follow the traditional model of a good Punjabi woman, which, along with feminine pursuits, includes going to university and becoming a lawyer. When an English girl Jules (Catarina Ciccone) sees Jess playing in the park, she recognizes Jess’ skills, and invites her to try out for her soccer team, the Hounslow Harriers, and their coach Joe (Ashley Emerson).
This leads to the central crisis as Jess playing for the Harriers causes major trouble for her family, particularly her sister Pinky (Blythe Jandoo) and her plans to marry Teetu (Paul Almeida), the scion of upwardly mobile parents (Sasha Ghoshal and Asha Vijayasingham). Other key characters are Jules’ worrywart mother Paula (Nicola Dawn Brook) and Jess’ closeted gay friend Tony (Matt Nethersole). In short, Bend It Like Beckham: The Musical is about female empowerment and following your passion, complicated by one’s duty and loyalty to family. Problems with first love and friendship rivalry also muddy the waters.
The production has two areas of concentration, the adult Sikh immigrants versus their English-born children, and the seductive English influences that surround them. Gino Berti and Daniel Ezralow are responsible for the general choreography of the show, and the most muscular, vigorous and eye-catching choreography is set on the Harrier girls, which they perform to rousing songs such as “Girl-Perfect”. Other contemporary choreography for the lively younger crowd includes hip-hop steps and popular dance moves.
Famed Bollywood dance maven Longinus Fernandes has set the dances on the older Sikh folk, including the always popular Punjabi dance. There are also several numbers featuring traditional Punjabi music, particularly revolving around wedding ritual. Racism is also highlighted with a particularly haunting song, “People Like Us”, that Jess’ father sings to her about the prejudice that he has experienced, and that is always there, no matter how assimilated you feel.
There are some strange things with the music, though, such as the off-stage single male vocalise that accompanies Jess’ father’s song. The incongruence really jars, particularly, because it is not executed very well. On a lighter note, the Sikh adults also sing about how far they’ve come in life in the droll song “Look At Us Now”.
I was not familiar with the show music of Howard Goodall, but I certainly am acquainted with the many themes he has written for major British television series such as Mr. Bean and Blackadder. His music for Bend It Like Beckham: The Musical is tuneful and varied, manifested in such diverse songs as Jess’ stirring anthem “Glorious”, the romantic ballad “Got Love”, and the heart-felt mother/daughter quartet “Tough Love” for Jess and her mother, and Jules and Paula.
As for Charles Hart, he is the lyricist for both Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera and Aspects of Love, the latter being my favourite Webber show of all time. Hart is a gifted wordsmith, particularly in creating internal rhymes, and his lyrics are always worth listening to. That’s why poor singing diction drives me crazy, and there are several culprits in this cast, particularly Jules and Pinky.
The show has a rough and ready feel to it, as if the rehearsal time was rushed, and which makes for a ragged flow, but that should settle down over the run. The 27-member cast is a Canadian-British hybrid, some of who are up to the mark, and some of who are not. There is certainly uneven singing ability. In the very first opening number, I actually heard people in the ensemble going flat. Jess’ father is a strong actor, but not a particularly strong singer. Because he performed “People Like Us” in singspiel, it worked.
The most impressive performance comes from Zaidi (British) as Jess. She has a powerful voice, good acting chops, and really invests herself in the role. Both mothers are solid, and both are Canadian. Sadiq as Jess’ overbearing Mum, and Brook as the amusing try-too-hard Paula, are good singing-actors. Emerson (British) as coach Joe gives a restrained performance, which suits the tentative nature of his character admirably. His Joe is more charmer than Alpha male. I found Ciccone (Canadian) as Jules, and Jandoo (British) as Pinky to be disappointing. They garble their lines whether speaking or singing.
The production designers, save one, are homegrown. Sue LePage has come up with functional set pieces that can be moved easily on or off. Jess and Jules’ bedrooms are on opposite sides of the stage with the middle reserved for the Southall Market, the soccer field, and Jess’ family living room. The sort of abstract picture of the Sikh spiritual leader that dominates the living room, however, is almost scary.
Sean Mulcahy’s costumes are a suitable mix of contemporary London and Punjabi traditional, while Jason Hand’s conventional lighting follows the action, so to speak. Of course, there are projections as scene locators, which seems to be the norm for musicals these days. These are courtesy the Italian design team Chokolate Vision, and they are certainly eccentric, such as being half a screen, so the bottoms of the pictures are cut off. If truth be told, the entire production looks to be on the skimpy side, but that is understandable, given the costs involved.
Veteran Canadian director Madeline Paul has moved the performers efficiently around the stage in a just-the-facts-ma’am fashion. There is no room for her to be a creative auteur, and the story is told through a bare minimum of forces. When I saw the movie back in the day, the audience was on tenterhooks wondering what the outcome would be, but as mentioned before, there really isn’t any noticeable tension in this musical version. Nonetheless, to give credit where credit is due, this is a huge show that has been created from scratch, and, when looked at from that viewpoint, Bend It Like Beckham: The Musical, is quite an achievement. It’s also a pleasant couple of hours to spend in the theatre.
Incidentally, the title comes from British superstar soccer player David Beckham, and his special kick that bends the trajectory of the ball around a bunch of defenders to score a goal. He is Jess’ idol, and she wants to bend it like Beckham.