Theatre Review: Short North Stage’s The Great One a Hockey Musical Everyone (Even Sports Fans) Will Enjoy
When I first heard about Short North Stage’s original musical The Great One, a hockey musical, I felt bemused. Sports and theater do not typically jive well together; or, really, sports fan and theater patrons believe they do not. As a person who knows very little about sports, I developed a keen sense of curiosity about The Great One. I truly did not know what to expect, especially in regards to the audience for this show. Who is the target audience for a musical about hockey? I write that thought with no ill-will, but rather to describe my initial pre-performance impressions.
Imagine my surprise as the SNS’s Green Room space fills up with a packed house. Many of the audience members wear jerseys and or sit in that theater for the first time ever. A chant of “C-B-J” breaks out as the lights fade to begin the show. A very different group of people sit in that theater than might typically for a Short North musical, which I find incredibly awesome.
The show takes place in a dive bar, The Slick, the watering hole in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada for Oilers fans. We witness a quaint diddy by Rene (James Higgins) as he plays the cornered piano singing about hockey and Canada—his passions. Then the drama begins. It is August 10, 1988, the day after Wayne Gretzky, “The Great One,” announced his trade from the Edmonton Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings. The regulars shuffle into the joint, and Marty, the bartender, played quirkily by Linda Kinnison summarizes the scene. “I’ve seen more smiles at a funeral.”
She continues to cautiously yet optimistically sing, perhaps to prevent any suicides, that “It’s Only a Game,” to which the male patrons scoff at or chastise her. Sports fans in the audience give a special feel and actually really make this show work. People that understand hockey, or really any sport, are needed for this show. Otherwise it’s almost like telling philosophy quips to five year olds—the audience might not get it. I certainly could not comprehend the severity of a player switching teams without the audience’s reactions. Any moment that seems almost too melodramatic to me forced a jersey-wearing spectator two seats away to chuckle or nod. This slightly silly show actually proves quite real.
The five performers, Higgins, Kinnison, half-owner Rusty (Jason Bobb), and regulars Lucas (Randy Benge), and Phil (Matt Welsh) create this “Piano Man” culture on stage. These five come together over a few Molsons to share stories and cope with a severe loss in their lives. Their team, the Oilers, allows them to escape, and the one constant—number 99—abandons them, a theme that continues throughout the show. Whether about fathers and wives leaving or dying, each character confesses in a way to how Edmonton, the Oilers, and Gretzky gave them a way to survive. And in this great somber afternoon, the friendship and fandom delve deeper into that so strong bond that makes sports such a community event. It’s really quite interesting to watch.
Short North Stage produced this as their first original production. Higgins’ music gives a bit of a tick, tick…BOOM! vibe to the show with the introspectively sad piano songs played from the stage. Mild sprinklings of Sondheim-esque performances, particularly Welsh’s beautiful performance of the titular song add some diversity to the music. Unfortunately, periodic mic level issues hinder some of the moments in the show, a problem I hope they can work out as the run continues.
Director Scott Hunt and his co-authors JJ Tiemeyer and James Higgins craft an engaging story that, apart from some harsh lighting choices, enables the audience to connect to each other and the performers. The production runs a bit campy, but not so much that the audience cannot emphasize with the characters. It gets a bit serious at times, but not too much that it becomes an involved, dramatic piece of theater. It just is a town where a bunch of peoples’ lives face a giant emotional upheaval, and the simplicity in that really makes this a good one-hour show.
In celebration of the NHL All-Star Weekend or just to see a different sort of musical, hockey fan or hockey ignoramus, The Great One provides a little bit of everything to ensure a great time. The Great One proves a pleasant and heart-warming show.
The Great One plays through Jan. 25 in The Green Room at Short North Stage, 1187 N. High Street and plays Thurs.-Sat. at 7 and 9 pm; Sat.-Sun. at 3 pm; Sun. at 1 pm. $20; $15 for students. More information can be found online at shortnorthstage.org.