Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.
On the night that Bend It Like Beckham: the Musical premiered in North America at Toronto’s Bluma Appel Theatre, all signs indicated that it was going to score big with audiences. When the show’s artistic director and co-writer Gurinder Chadha asked, “how many of you have seen the movie?”, she was greeted with resounding cheers of assent and applause. People had come to something familiar and beloved, and they were predisposed to have a good time.
And the musical delivers it. Based on the hit 2002 movie, it is the story of Jesminder “Jess” Bhamra, a talented football (soccer) player from a Sikh-Punjabi family living in London’s Southall neighbourhood. She idolizes British soccer legend David Beckham, and desperately wants to play professionally – an ambition that runs counter to the expectations of her traditional immigrant parents. She plays football with boys her age in a local park, where she meets Juliet “Jules”. Jules also aspires to soccer greatness, and adores US soccer star Mia Hamm. Having noticed Jess’ talent, Jules invites her to play on her all-girls team the Harriers. These two teenage girls from different backgrounds share both a talent for soccer and the pressure to bend to familial expectations. The musical is buoyant and exuberant, with a feel-good charm, yet it also conveys serious themes of intergenerational and intercultural tension. It illustrates effectively the challenge of negotiating the tenuous balance between personal and parental choices.
Madeline Paul, the director of the Toronto production, elicits a skilled performance from her ensemble of performers from the UK and Toronto. Standouts include UK-based Laila Zaidi as Jess, who sings the bulk of the show’s numbers and delivers a heartwarming performance as a girl torn between her parents’ wishes and her own dreams. Toronto-based newcomer Catarina Ciccone is Jess’ western counterpart, Jules. Her comic timing and vocal talent suggest a promising career. Nicola Dawn Brook plays Jules’ mother Paula, and in her too-few appearances, consistently steals the scene. Rounding out the main cast are Toronto’s Matt Nethersole as Jess’ sweet and supportive ally Tony, and Dora Award-winning Zorana Sadiq as Jess’ mother Mrs Bhamra. Sadiq is compelling as she, by turns, delights and despairs to protect the daughter she can’t understand.
I found the staging a bit mysterious. Projections (by Chokolate Vision) appear on the top half of a screen to indicate exterior and interior locations, while the bottom half remains a solid colour. The set, designed by Sue LePage, is minimalist. Set pieces are wheeled on and off to depict market stalls, the Bhamras’ home, Jess and Jules’ bedrooms and risers on the football field – though curiously, these are not utilized until the finale number. The actors perform in front of these pieces, and the lack of multiple levels makes the staging feel linear and static – at least until the screen is removed in the second half of the second act. At this point, Gino Berti and Daniel Ezralow’s choreography can shine in “Harriers’ Preparation/ Wedding Ceremony” and “The Wedding/ Football Final”, which combine soccer exercises and athletic movements with Indian-inspired group dance numbers. These numbers are ingenious and dynamic, and make full use of the cavernous stage. This is the show at its best: when the music and choreography integrate western musical theatre with Indian dance and instruments, in particular the use of tabla and dholak, which supply an understated percussive line that underscores the duality of cultures on stage.
The melodic taan sung by Toronto-raised, London-based Sasha Ghoshal that serves as a backing vocal to the plaintive “People Like Us”, which is sung by Mr Bhamra (Sorab Wadia), lingers like a haunting lamentation. For me, this number best captures the agreement implicit in the communal response to Chadha’s question at the show’s start. This is why the movie struck such a strong universal chord. Whether we are immigrant parents like the Bhamras and Chopras, or their first-generation children, we understand what he is singing because we know what it’s like for “people like us”. The chances afforded to those who are of the dominant culture contrast the racism, xenophobia, career demotions and employee abuse that newcomer parents endure in order to build a life for their children in a foreign country. For their children, balancing the customs of the country where they live with those of their heritage is a constant tightrope walk. They teeter to stay upright while coexisting in two cultures, maintaining multiple identities, and living up to double the expectations. Whether they are themselves parents or young people, audiences can relate all too well to Jess’ predicament of trying to follow her own ambitions while bending to her parents’ values. And also to her parents’ similar need to learn how to withstand communal pressures in the form of the know-it-all “uncles and aunties” whose gossip encodes cultural and personal bias.
Ultimately, this relatability and representation are Bend It Like Beckham: the Musical’s strongest attractions. Yes, the ending feels a bit too pat, the accents waver, and the resolution of certain plot points strains credulity. But at the end of the day, this is a musical comedy. It, too, has certain expectations to meet, so it delivers the happy ending that we expect. The movie version was a springboard for the careers of Parminder Nagra (Jess), Archie Panjabi (Pinky) and Keira Knightley (Jules) – and by extension, the Mindy Kalings, Aziz Ansaris, Frieda Pintos and Hamish Patels that have followed. If this musical can do what the movie did – and accomplish this without perpetuating the saris-and-samosas stereotype – it will have served an even greater purpose.
In the meantime, catch it before January 5 – and do stay to dance during the curtain call!
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What: Bend It Like Beckham the Musical │Music and Orchestrations: Howard Goodhall│Lyrics: Charles Hart│Book: Paul Mayeda Berges and Gurinder Chadha│Musical Director: Mark Camilleri│Choreography: Gino Berti and Daniel Ezralow│Director: Madeline Paul│Artistic Director: Gurinder Chadha
Cast: Alana Randall, Alene Delgian, Asha Vijayasingham, Ashley Emerson, Bianca Melchior, Blythe Jandoo, Catarina Ciccone, Chelsea Preston, Dani Jazzar, Darcy Stewart, Kelsey Lacombe, Krystal Kiran, Laila Saidi, Lianne Tammi, Matt Nethersole, Meher Pavri, Natasha Strilchuk, Nicola Dawn Brook, Paul Almeida, Penelope Artemis, Rami Khan, Sasha Ghoshal, Sorab Wadia, Stephanie Visconti, Suchiththa Wickremesooriya, Will Jeffs, Zorana Sadiq
Who: Audiences 10 years of age and older
When: On stage until January 5, 2020
Where: Bluma Appel Theatre – St Lawrence Centre for The Arts, 27 Front Street, Toronto, ON
Info and Tickets: stlc.com
© Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya / Sesayarts Magazine, 2019