The Hockey Sweater: A Musical, the decisively Canadian show now at the National Arts Centre, is risky business.
Co-creators Emil Sher and Jonathan Munro have taken Roch Carrier’s simple, beloved story about a hockey-mad ten-year-old boy in a post-Second World War Quebec village and morphed it into a bright, often clamorous show with a 17-member cast and seven-piece band, a coed kids’ hockey team, characters who burst into song at the slightest provocation, swirling choreographed numbers on skates and a village priest with a deeply buried, albeit amusing, secret.
Based on Carrier’s own experience growing up in Ste-Justine, Que, which is where the tale is set, The Hockey Sweater has long been an iconic piece of Canadiana. Monkeying with it could incur the wrath of a nation.
Sher and Munro, together with director/choreographer Donna Feore, can relax. The show works splendidly, managing to be its own entity while respecting and celebrating its revered source.
Writer Sher and composer/conductor Munro (the two are also the co-lyricists) have expanded and deepened Carrier’s original story about Roch’s universe coming unravelled when his beloved Canadians hockey sweater, emblazoned with No. 9 in tribute to his hero, the legendary Maurice “Rocket” Richard, starts showing its age.
Roch (Wyatt Moss, a young performer with a disarming stage presence and remarkable physicality) wants to hang onto the sweater, especially because all his teammates on the Ste-Justine Rockets sport similar jerseys.
His mother Anna (Claire Lautier, whose singing is a delight) is equally determined that it be replaced. She orders a new one from the Eaton’s catalogue – in one of the show’s many moments of nostalgia, the scene includes projected images of women’s stylish muskrat coats and mittens for $1.50 – but, OMG!, what shows up at the door is a Maple Leafs sweater.
You can imagine what this does to young Roch, his standing among his teammates, and his relationship with his mother.
Carrier’s story ends shortly thereafter, with young Roch praying that moths dismember the detested Leafs jersey.
Sher and Munro push the tale much further. Not only do they imagine what happens after Roch rises from prayer, but they give us back stories. For instance, Roch’s dad, George, is never seen because he’s in Montreal, taking advantage of the post-war building boom.
They beef up folks like the attentive village priest, Father Delisle (Ian Simpson), and individuate with a few strokes some of Roch’s teammates (this is a talented group of young actors).
They turn to Feore for high-energy shots of choreography (oh, to be 10 years old again!) like the Rockets performing a goofy Rockettes high-kicking routine.
They call on folks like set and costume designer Michael Gianfrancesco to create a world that moves from a chilly outdoor rink to a warm church interior to the Carrier home (that home is furnished a bit too sparsely on the large stage to convey a real family feel, even if that family is sometimes at odds with itself).
And they write songs. Cheeky songs. Poignant songs. Songs like the uproarious Dear Mister Eaton (reprise) in which Roch’s frequently exasperated teacher Mlle. Therrien, played by Kate Blackburn, phones the department store owner and, in mock grand opera style, lays out the case for quickly shipping a replacement sweater.
The best number, though, is Breakaway. Coming at the top of the second act and sung by Roch’s teammates, it encapsulates in buoyant fashion the story’s theme of celebrating difference, of breaking away from the pack, of being yourself no matter what jersey you’re wearing.
Sher, Munro and company have amplified Carrier’s story, but the original intimacy remains. Young Roch is still a relatable kid, beset by the blend of aspiration and confusion that drove most of us at that age. His mother is a mother, torn between being protective and helping her fledgling prepare for life. The village around them, depicted by painted backdrops of wintertime homes grouped in casual, friendly fashion, feels both enveloping and, potentially, a bit smothering.
There’s a pleasing underlying modesty to all this that balances out the bigness that musicals demand.
The Hockey Sweater debuted at Montreal’s Segal Centre in 2017. Since then, the National Arts Centre, through its National Creation Fund to help develop ambitious new Canadian works, has poured $200,000 into refining the show. It’s been money well spent.
The Hockey Sweater: A Musical is a Segal Centre for Performing Arts (Montreal) production. In the Babs Asper Theatre until Dec. 23, with an American Sign Language (ASL) presentation Dec. 22 at 2 p.m. The show was reviewed Friday. Tickets: NAC box office, Ticketmaster outlets, 1-888-991-2787, nac-cna.ca.