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Review: ‘Bend It Like Beckham’ translates well to the musical stage (Includes first-hand account)

It succeeds better than it should. Based on the hit 2002 comedy movie by Gurinder Chadha, Bend It Like Beckham is an imperfect yet fun, colourful show about choosing your own path in life. A big part of why it works is the passionate, determined lead performance of Laila Zaidi as Jess Bharma, an Indian teenager in London, England who’s obsessed with soccer and the Manchester United – to the dismay of her conservative Sikh parents (Sorab Wadia, Zorana Sadiq), who want her to marry a nice brown boy, study law and learn to cook aloo gobi.

Jess finds solace in secretly joining a local girls’ footy team, the Harriers, after she meets the tomboyish Jules (played by Catarina Ciccone here, and a teenage Keira Knightley in the movie) and the handsome coach, Joe (Ashley Emerson). She turns out to be great at the game, too – but that’s not enough to convince her family. (Her parents have an odd knack for conveniently showing up when she’s doing something they don’t want her to do – kicking a ball around with local boys, or hugging Joe.)

Another reason to see it is the energetic, quick-paced direction by Madeline Paul, a veteran of the West End and the Toronto scene, assisted by some fine choreography by Gino Berti and Daniel Ezralow, successfully merging Indian culture with sports bravado. Beckham works best as a visual spectacle, with dance galore complementing the striking set and projection design, but it’s faithful enough to the original story (Chadha serves as artistic director and co-wrote the book with her husband, Paul Mayeda Berges) that fans of the movie should enjoy it.

That I liked the show as much as I did surprised me. Full confession: I didn’t see the film until recently, and I didn’t care much for it. Was it more because I’m not a teenage girl, or because I’m not big on sports? Or maybe it was just boredom with the predictable plot, the montages of girls doing football-ey things, and the cheesy pop music on the soundtrack. This musical adaptation maintains the cookie-cutter qualities of the story (sorry, no medals for guessing whether Jess wins the big game, or whether romantic complications happen with Joe), but it ups the music quotient with a strong score by Howard Goodall.

Highlight tunes from Goodall and lyricist Charles Hart include the catchy, triumphant anthem “Result”, following a Harriers victory, and the witty “Bend It”, in which Jess’ friend Tony (Matt Nethersole) encourages her to bend the rules to keep her soccer dream alive (“Don’t twist the truth / Just fail to raise it”). Then there’s the mournful “People Like Us”, in which Jess’ father discourages her from trying to fit it with other Londoners – and reveals his own failed sports dreams. “There was once a man / With a gleam in his eye / But a gleam in your eye / Given time, will die,” Wadia sings.

Like many contemporary musicals, Beckham is loaded with expository lyrics that express what people are thinking in the most literal terms, typically things that should already be obvious through the characters’ actions. (Maybe this should be called the Lloyd Webber Syndrome?) In one song, “Tough Love”, Jess, Jules, and their mothers take the stage separately, singing about how they have trouble connecting with each other. “If she knew what I’m going through / If she felt what I feel / She’d be more what a mum is for / I’d have less to conceal,” sings Zaidi. Well, der. Not terribly respectful to the audience’s intelligence, but I suppose it’s an excuse for another song.

The cast is excellent, for the most part; Zaidi and Sadiq have strong singing voices, while Wadia has some funny moments. As far as comedy goes, though, Nicola Dawn Brook wins that trophy as Jules’ clueless mother, Paula, who wishes her daughter were less into soccer and more into traditionally girly things. Paula scores the show’s funniest line (also in the movie) when she tells Jules, “There’s a reason why that Sporty Spice is the only one of ’em without a fella.”

Again, there’s plenty of visual goods to hold your attention, like Chokolate Vision’s projection design, which brings vivid images of football stadiums, London residential houses, and more to the upstage screen. Unfortunately, the sound design isn’t nearly as strong – tinny and a bit scratchy, and even with the occasional feedback. Inadequate sound is never much of a selling point for a musical.

It ain’t My Fair Lady, but it’s a good time – and also a perfect opportunity to give talented visible-minority actors like Zaidi, Wadia and many others fair representation in the Canadian theatre scene. Even if you’re not a soccer fan, or know nothing of Indian culture, you may like it.

Bend It Like Beckham: The Musical runs at the Bluma Appel Theatre, St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, until January 5.

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