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Matt Nethersole, middle, Laila Zaidi, top, and Catarina Ciccone, with trophy, in Bend It Like Beckham: The Musical.

Seanna Kennedy /Handout

  • Bend It Like Beckham: The Musical
  • Written by: Gurinder Chadha and Paul Mayeda Berges
  • Music by: Howard Goodhall
  • Lyrics by: Charles Hart
  • Genre: Musical
  • Director: Madeline Paul
  • Actors: Laila Zaidi, Catarina Ciccone, Ashley Emerson, Sorab Wadia, Zorana Sadiq, Nicola Dawn Brooks, Matt Nethersole, Blythe Jandoo
  • Companies: Starvox Entertainment, Kintop Pictures, Bend It Productions
  • Venue: St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts
  • City: Toronto

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Bend It Like Beckham is a universal live-your-dreams story. That was one reason for the movie’s huge box office success, along with, of course, its joyous affirmation of girl power.

Seanna Kennedy

Props to Gurinder Chadha. The British filmmaker has cannily chosen Toronto for the North American premiere of Bend It Like Beckham: The Musical. Considering the large South Asian population in the Greater Toronto Area, and the enthusiastic reception that it gave her original film in 2003, the stage show was almost certain to score here.

Sure enough, on the night I attended – after opening night – Toronto’s Bluma Appel Theatre in the St. Lawrence Centre was filled with eager spectators. My Indo-Canadian brother-in-law, a former high-school sports coach, had already seen a preview and reported back with two thumbs up.

Yet for all its cultural specificity – a young woman from a British Sikh family defying her tradition-bound parents’ wishes in order to pursue her passion for soccer – Bend It Like Beckham is a universal live-your-dreams story. That was one reason for the movie’s huge box office success, along with, of course, its joyous affirmation of girl power.

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We get plenty of both in this rough-edged but rousing production, which sweeps you up and propels you breathlessly toward its inevitably uplifting goal.

Chadha’s musical adaptation – with a tasty masala score by Howard Goodall and lyrics by The Phantom of the Opera’s Charles Hart – made its debut in London’s West End in 2015 but closed the following year. What we’re seeing, then, is a reboot (a particularly apt term), with a new cast and creative team made up of both British and, predominantly, Canadian artists.

The show’s soul-baring songs also bring greater balance to the story, giving us more sympathy for the parents.

Seanna Kennedy

A plucky but sensitive Laila Zaidi stars as Jess, the David Beckham-idolizing teen living in London’s South Asian Southall suburb. A charmingly boyish Catarina Ciccone is the equally soccer-mad Jules, the white girl who has seen Jess play and invites her to join her team, the all-female Hounslow Harriers.

Jess’s old-fashioned mother (a zesty Zorana Sadiq) won’t have it – she wants Jess to focus on cooking, not kicking – and her father (a solemn Sorab Wadia), a disappointed one-time cricketer, is equally discouraging. So, Jess pursues her dream behind their backs, getting useful advice on deception from her good friend, the discreetly gay Tony (a winning Matt Nethersole).

Chadha and her co-writer (and husband) Paul Mayeda Berges have kept their story in its 2001 setting and follow the film’s plot closely. Jess and Jules fall out over their shared love for their dreamboat coach Joe (a bland Ashley Emerson) and the climax finds Jess torn between attending her big sister’s lavish wedding and playing a potentially life-changing soccer match.

There has, however, been some tweaking of the characters. Jules’s mother Paula (Nicola Dawn Brook) is no longer married and prim, but a randy divorcee, and her icky homophobia in the film is replaced by loving acceptance when she mistakenly thinks her daughter is a lesbian.

The show’s soul-baring songs also bring greater balance to the story, giving us more sympathy for the parents. Jess’s dad has a poignant ballad about reluctantly accepting your lot as a brown-skinned immigrant in England, while Paula sings one about bravely accepting your lot as a bemused parent.

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The production – directed by choreographer Madeline Paul – is one big, exciting ensemble dance number after the other.

Handout

Those are rare reflective moments in this high-energy show. Where other musicals have one choreographer, this show boasts three – Gino Berti, Daniel Ezralow (whose suitably sporty credits include the opening ceremony for the Sochi Olympics) and, for the Indian dance sequences, Longinus Fernandes, whose work was seen in Slumdog Millionaire.

No surprise, then, that the production – directed by another choreographer, Madeline Paul – is one big, exciting ensemble dance number after the other. The Punjabi parents dance bhangra, their trendy daughters favour sexy Bollywood routines and the hard-charging Harriers perform like their own cheerleading squad. When the latter are onstage, the mix of adrenalin and estrogen is intoxicating.

I have various quibbles, both with the script and the production, but hey, I don’t want to spoil such a fun party. As a musical, this Beckham may not be major league, but it still has the emotional kick to send your heart aloft.

Bend It Like Beckham continues to Jan. 5. (benditmusical.com)

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