The heartwarming story of soccer and family tradition takes stage in Toronto
Somehow, I was just the wrong age for the movie Bend It Like Beckham when it came out — too old to enjoy it as a young person, not old enough to be comfortable going to movies marketed to families. For me, Bend It Like Beckham: The Musical was a completely fresh story and experience, and generally quite an enjoyable one.
The musical centers on Jess Bhamra, a talented and passionate soccer player who is also from a conservative Punjabi Sikh family that isn’t terribly keen on western notions of “girl power.” Her older sister, the beautiful and boy-crazy Pinky, is about to be engaged and the extended Bhamra family and close friends are full of excitement and plans about this… except Jess, who would rather think about soccer, and her beloved Manchester United. When she joins a girls’ soccer team, she doesn’t tell anyone in her family which… becomes a problem (since I hadn’t seen the movie before Bend It Like Beckham: The Musical, I’m assuming there must be others and I’m sticking with a no-spoilers approach.)
Jess is played by Laila Zaidi, who brings a sense of drive and determination to the role along with a voice that’s well-suited to the anthems lyricist Charles Hart gives her. As it’s her energy that drives the show, Zaidi’s ability to be powerful without being busy about it is a real asset. Jess’ parents, Mr and Mrs Bhamra (Sorab Wadia and Zorana Sadiq) give her the frame to push against, and Wadia in particular shines as a father who’s deeply torn between differing visions of what’s best for his daughter. Jess’ foil in the play might have been Pinky, which would have been cute, but writers Paul Mayeda Berges and Gurinder Chadha make a more interesting choice. Instead they set her alongside Jules, played by an excellent Catarina Ciccione, a serious young player who’s dedicated to sport and achievement (and whose single mother Paula portrayed by a thoroughly charming Nicola Dawn Brook) encourages her to get drunk and sleep around.
The ensemble is otherwise quite delightful and talented, and I appreciate both how many Southeast Asian actors are working because of this show and also the tender portrayal of Sikh courtship and wedding rituals it contains. Based on the enthusiasm of the Sikh family behind me, I’m going to say that it was properly done as well (which I mention as a Jew who sometimes sees shows where the actor they’ve gotten to play a rabbi mangles the Hebrew like they have a mouthful of frozen marbles and thinks, really?).
There’s also a romantic plotline about Jess and her coach, Joe, which apparently also appears in the movie that left me, honestly, a bit sour. I mention it in the event that you intend to take your preteen or teenage children to see Bend It Like Beckham: The Musical, which I otherwise think is a great idea — you may want to be prepared afterward to talk about it. Suffice to say, I don’t think it plays well in the era of #MeToo, and I wouldn’t have made that choice.
I also want to mention the choreography in Bend It Like Beckham: The Musical. I now know that there is, in the great and wild world, a pair of choreographers who can manage to both make soccer look balletic and Bollywood look easy, so thank you to Gino Berti and Daniel Ezralow for that.
Overall, this production of Bend It Like Beckham: The Musical is well-placed for a holiday treat. It will appeal to multiple generations, it’s light, bright, and colorful, and the overall message — that being true to one’s self and connected to one’s family are both important — rings true and through.
- Bend It Like Beckham: The Musical is playing until January 5, 2020 at the Bluma Appel Theatre in the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts (27 Front St. E)
- Tickets range from $59.95 to $129.95
- Tickets are available in person at the venue box office or online.
Photo provided by the company