Review: BEND IT LIKE BECKHAM – The Musical

by Lynn on December 24, 2019

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the St. Lawrence Centre, Toronto, Ont.

Book by Paul Mayeda Berges and Gurinder Chadha

Music and orchestrations by Howard Goodall

Lyrics by Charles Hart

Direction by Madeline Paul

Choreography by Gino Berti and Daniel Ezralow

Set by Sue LePage

Costumes by Sean Mulcahy

Lighting by Jason Hand

Projection design by Chokolate Vision

Artistic Director, Gurinder Chadha

Cast: Paul Almeida

Nicola Dawn Brook

Catarina Ciccone

Ashley Emerson

Sasha Ghoshal

Blythe Jandoo

Rami Khan

Krystal Kiran

Matt Nethersole

Zorana Sadiq

Asha Vijayasingham

Sorab Wadia

Laila Zaidi

And several others.

Lively and energetic but so diminished from the wonderful film of the same name, one wonders why they bothered. It’s all the more disappointing because Gurinder Chadha, who wrote and directed the film, was all over this ‘musical’.

 The Story.  Bend it Like Beckham, the Musical is based on the film of the same name, about two teenage girls, Jess and Jules, from different cultures who just want to play soccer.

Jess is a teenager from a Punjabi Sikh family living in London. She loves playing soccer with a group of male friends. She’s really good.  One day a teenage girl named Jules sees Jess play and asks her to try out for her girl’s soccer team, “The Harriets”. Jess is accepted by Joe the coach and so Jess plays soccer but doesn’t tell her parents because she knows they won’t let her play because it’s not proper for a girl from a Sikh background to play this game. Her mother wants her to marry a nice man and become a good cook and homemaker. So Jess goes behind her parents’ back and plays in secret. Jess is the team’s best striker. Joe even comes to talk to Jess’s parents to try and convince them how good she is and how important it is for her to play. A personal relationship between Joe and Jess is also developing, so a mixed-race relationship will really cause her parent’s concern.

The team thrives and is going to the championships but it’s on the same day as Jess’s sister Pinky’s wedding and Jess has to be at the wedding. What to do? It’s a dilemma. So the show is about familial love, being true to yourself and your dreams.

The Production. The musical is based on the 2002 film co-written and directed by Gurinder Chadha.  She co-wrote the screenplay with her husband Paul Mayeda Berges. Chadha also co-wrote the book of the musical with her husband Paul Mayeda Berges. Chadha is also listed as one of the producers—and seems to have picked Madeline Paul as the director of the show if Madeline Paul’s director’s note is any indication. Chadha is listed as the “artistic director” whatever that means in this context. (Since when does a production list an ‘artistic director’ if there is already a director hired?) It’s all very mysterious. Gurinder Chadha seems to be all over this as if she just doesn’t want to let the project go (what’s next—a TV series?) One wonders, therefore, how it’s possible for such a successful film to go so terribly wrong as a musical.

Lemme count the ways. Bend It Like Beckham—the Musical is supposed to be a show about soccer, but there is precious little of it in the show. There is a lot of warm up activity, running on the spot, stretching etc. of the team but precious little soccer. And more often than not we are told about it rather than shown. A lot of attention is placed on Jess (Laila Zaidi) having to sneak away from her family to play an important game in Germany. We are told after the event how she did it. We are told little about the actual game except that Jess made a penalty kick to win the game. No indication of what the score was; no indication of how the team got that score, no sense of what should be the drama and tension of it or the abilities of the other team, just one penalty kick and they win the game because of Jess. Lame.

The same thing happens at the championship game. Jess is about to sneak off from her sister’s wedding when her father finally gives Jess his permission. Again, we are led to believe that Jess makes an important kick and wins the game. Director Madeline Paul’s handling of these two shots is impressive with lighting and animation indicating the trajectory of the ball, but those moments are few and far between. The staging is mainly stand in a line and talk out to the audience with occasional glimpses to the person really spoken too. It all looks so awkward.

In a scene when Pinky’s (Blythe Jandoo) prospective in-laws are coming to talk to her parents they show their displeasure at this unsuitable family, but Madeline Paul has the in-laws at the back of a group of dancers, obscuring their reaction from the audience. Wouldn’t it make more sense to have them at the front but to the side watching in ‘disgust’ at the goings on so that the audience sees it too? That the scene is obscured is a wasted opportunity.

Howard Goodall’s music seems all of the same up beat tempo and undistinguished. As are Charles Hart’s lyrics.  There are 29 songs in all! WHY? Characters we know very little about have songs telling us things about them that are not supported by the dialogue. Jules’  mother Paula (Nicola Dawn Brook) is presented as a silly, thoughtless woman yet she has a song “There She Goes” in which Paula expresses her innermost thoughts about her daughter and their relationship etc. It comes from no where. One wonders if the book writers and the song writers were ever in the same room discussing the characters.

Jess’s Father Mr. Bhamra (nicely played by Sorab Wadia) doesn’t want her to play soccer because he fears she will run into racism as he did and it prevented him from following his dreams. (“People Like Us) Huh? She’s picked for the team by a white teenager. The white coach picks her to be on the team and she is their star. The team wins because of her. The predominantly white team embraces Jess. What is the father talking about? Yet few songs before that Mr and Mrs. Bhamra sing joyfully “Look at Us Now” that celebrates their success since immigrating to England. Which is it—he’s been held back or he’s a success? Confusing.

Joe tries to tell Jess to kick the ball so that it ‘bends’ like David Beckham—her hero. It’s a genius shot in which Beckham could kick the ball so that it bent or curved around players and find the net to score. Jess tries it and kicks it tepidly into the wings. Then Joe goes into the fine mechanics of the kick, how to aim it, position it, what she should feel, the poetry of it. Jess ties again, and kicks it tepidly into the wings only it’s presented as if she has improved the shot. As Jess Laila Zaidi sings with power and enthusiasm and shows her frustration at not playing soccer, but doesn’t show the finesse that Jess is supposed to have as a person who is the star of the team. So much emphasis is placed on Jess’ abilities that it must be there in Zaidi’s performance and it’s not.

The cast is a mix of British actors and Canadians.  Besides Laila Zaidi who is from Britain, Canadian Catarina Ciccone is fearless as Jules—athletic, frustrated with her mother and hiding her feelings about someone she loves. Liked her.

Sue LePage is a wonderful designer but here her set is just odd. Many projections are used to create movement and a sense of changing scenes but there is a wall at the back that obscures most of the projections. As I said, odd.

It’s very tempting to compare the film with the musical. I don’t see the point. They are two different art forms in which each can do things the other can’t so why compare them. That said I’m so aware of aspects of the film that for some reason never made it into the musical: Mr Bhamra clearly expressing his dreams of wanting to play cricket but being thwarted because of racism, that’s not in the musical; any clear build-up of the various games the team plays and the tension and drama of missed shots, goals and ties are given short-shrift in the musical.

The choreography by both Gino Berti and Daniel Ezralow is very athletic and lively. I suspect they created the dances for the team and their various workouts.  But the creation of the Indian Dances by Longinus Fernandes and Krystal Kiran is something special—joyous, raucous, infectious. In fact I thought the best dance scenes are the wedding of Pinky and the curtain call.

Comment.  The musical is heavy going for me.  There are too many opportunities missed to give this show an individual stamp rather than looking at it as a pale imitation of the film.  As a musical Bend It Like Beckham is inadequate and a real disappointment.

Produced by Starvox Entertainment

Began: Dec. 7, 2019.

Closes: Jan. 5, 2020.

Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

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