The Hockey Sweater: A Musical
skates to a triumph
An iconic piece of Canadian literature brought to life
By Byron Toben
Funny how themes run in tandem. Just as the wonderful proven hockey play Playing With Fire was in its final days as a Quebec premiere at the Centaur, along comes The Hockey Sweater: A Musical in its world premiere at the Segal. Fire involved one actor with ice skates on a special plastic surface. Sweater features eight pre teens cavorting on a similar platform, albeit with roller type skates.
Terrific direction and choreography by Stratford Festival alumna Donna Feore. At the usual Sundays at the Segal chats before the previews, she confided that her first choreography of youngsters there was for the musical Oliver, involving 19 kids. She admitted to trepidations that her career may be in the hands of a six year old who might stumble.
… the set design by Michael Gianfrancesco captured the feel of the wonderful Sheldon Cohen illustrations in the English translation of the story…
That same chat involved insights by writer Emil Sher who wrote both the stage ‘book’ and song lyrics, along with composer Jonathan Monro who also co-wrote lyrics, and the original author of the famous story himself, Roch Carrier. Mr. Sher explained the difficulty in expanding this story to a full two hours, necessitating some additions that made sense in conformity with the original.
In response to a question from the audience, Mr. Carrier confirmed that the set design by Michael Gianfrancesco captured the feel of the wonderful Sheldon Cohen illustrations in the English translation of the story published by May Cutler’s Tundra Books. (Ms. Cutler, who passed away in 2011, later became mayor of Westmount and, yes, Fringe Festival icon Keir is her son.) Cohen also produced an NFB version of the story.
Mr. Carrier related how he accompanied Mr. Cohen on a trip to the small Quebec town, Ste-Justine, where he was born, to get a ‘feel’ of time and place before creating his pictures. Even though Cohen and Carrier’s mother were both unilingual in their own languages, they somehow got along famously, he remembered, even to his own exclusion from their conversation
The panel was moderated by theatre critic and CJAD producer Sarah Deshaies, as will be all Sunday at the Segal chats this year. She and I share a unique commonality that will be revealed at the end of this review.
The show also features a live band out of sight.
The show also features a live band out of sight. Mr. Munro doubled as bandleader and one keyboard player. The six others played keyboard, violin, clarinet, sax, trumpet, flugelhorn, guitar and percussion, the whole giving a lively and peppy 1946 sound, the time period when the events tool place.
The fantastic cast, who had to sing and dance as well as act and, for many, skate, includes nine adults of which one, Richard Jutras, portrays a present day Roch Carrier viewing himself as a ten year old. Very poignant and touching. I tried to think of other plays involving this ploy, but could only recall Brendan Behan’s Borstal Boy. Any viewer out there know of another?
Anyway, of the four other major roles, we were impressed by Claire Lautier who plays Roch’s mom; Ian Simpson, the local priest/hockey coach Father Delisle; and Kate Blackburn, local schoolteacher Mlle Therrien.
Of the 18 songs in the score, Ms. Lauthier is featured in six, including two singles, Everything’s Under Control and Is It Me? Mr Simpson sings in three, including I Confess and Ms. Blackburn two, including Welcome To My Classroom.
The plot… revolves around the influence of hockey great Maurice Richard’s importance to French Canada enhancing its sense of identity.
Scott Beaudin, as Gaetan Ouellette, an older youth whose ankle injury ended his own hockey career, inspires young (and small) Roch with A Champion’s Heart.
A shout out to Segal casting director Rachelle Glait, who in conjunction with Dayton Walters casting, found eight such talented young actor/singer/dancer skaters who were so essential to the plot. Many of them came from away, but the lead of young Roch is Montréal’s own Jesse Noah Gruman, who took up violin at three and Irish dancing at five. He joins in 14 of the songs, including singles in Breakaway and Just Like Richard.
The plot, as is well known, revolves around the influence of hockey great Maurice Richard’s importance to French Canada enhancing its sense of identity. His number 9 became famous as, playing with the Montreal Canadiens, he became the first NHL player to score 50 goals in one (50 game) season, 500 goals lifetime, winning many Stanley cups. Thus the young classmates on Roch’s small town grade school team all wore Montreal bleu, blanc, rouge sweaters with the number 9. As Roch’s sweater became tattered, his mother sent away by Eaton’s catalogue for a new one, but horrors, what should arrive but a blue one with the logo of arch enemy team, Toronto Maple Leafs.
If you see only one show this year, don’t miss this one!
This story, churned out by the real Roch Carrier, was a last minute late submission to Radio Canada to meet a deadline. Although he admits that at the time, he felt it was the worst thing he had ever written, it has proven to be a classic, being read from space by astronauts back to earth and leading Mr. Carrier to a career that would include an Order of Canada and becoming chairman of the Canada Council for The Arts (’94-’97). If you see only one show this year, don’t miss this one!
Oh yeah, what do I and Sarah share? Our own first stage appearances, years apart, were as trees! In my case, I wasn’t even the main tree, just a background one. However, I so impressed all that my next role was that of Christopher Columbus! So, indeed, there are no small roles.
Images: Leslie Schacter
Read also: Oedipus Part One
Byron Toben is the immediate past-president of the Montreal Press Club.