In my opinion, theater is best when it is new. When audience members have no idea what’s coming next (and no ‘Original Broadway Cast’ recording for comparison) they can be fully engaged. Further in my opinion, musicals are the most amazing type of theater. Not because of the singing but because musicals intentionally destroy reality. True, normal people don’t burst into song and dance on the street but we don't go to see normal people: We go to see a few weirdos worthy of having 15 songs written about them. In the audience of a musical, people let their guards down. Lastly, I believe theater for children (and their adults) is the most sincere kind of theater. Performances that explore themes simple enough for 5 year olds to understand yet universal enough to tug at adult heartstrings are incredible. Last year I saw a performance of Pinocchio at the Children’s Theatre Company that I unflinchingly tell people was the best piece of theater I've ever seen. Kids laughed, adults cried, we all learned how to be better storytellers. SO…when I heard that the very same Children’s Theatre Company was presenting a brand new musical (about Minnesota hockey) I was pretty excited.
Walking into CTC on Sunday afternoon was an experience unto itself. Toddlers walked with parents, followed by grandparents – some holding hands and all dressed a little nicer than you’d expect. Some shirts showed stains from lunch. Some tired parents gratefully gazed into each other's eyes, clearly feeling blessed to be on this ‘date’ for the whole family. Entire clans treating this theater as their sacred destination – discussing past plays and how many times they’ve seen CTC’s production of “The Grinch.” The ushers chatted with young people about hockey, some young athletes clearly felt invited to the artistic world in a new way. Some children rushed in as though going to their first day of school or the circus. This is all no accident; CTC has been a pillar of the community for 50 years and is far beyond its first generation of fans. In addition to live shows, they offer numerous engagement activities. They’re not just a theater, they’re a community – and an inviting one at that.
Before I even got to the lobby I was in love with this show. Anything created by such a beautiful community must be amazing. Walking into the theater only encouraged my attitude. The stage was set as a remarkable facsimile of an indoor hockey rink. The ‘ice’ of the floor looked so good it demanded a double take to make sure it wasn’t really frozen. Children walked around the room getting closer glances at the amazing stage and, upon hearing instruments being tuned, found the pit orchestra. Swarms of children gazed at the musicians as they’d view caged animals at the zoo. This room is clearly a place where children and their adults feel comfortable. They are welcome here, this is for them.
With the perfect introduction to the building and theater, the play finally began. I was ready to laugh and to cry. Ready to see the world anew. Ready for a unique experience to shake me free of my everyday adult life. And then the play was… not great. Many actors were great, the set design was great, the costumes were great, lights were amazing, the ‘ice skating’ (roller blading) choreography was stunning, the vocal performances were great, but the show… the actual plot and characters and emotional magnetism… was disappointing. I spent the first 15 minutes hoping I just didn’t understand something. I spent the rest of the first act hoping the plot would come together soon. For the whole second act I wished it was just me, that the rest of the audience was understanding it in a way I wasn’t. But they weren’t. There was nothing there to understand.
It brings me no joy to criticize this piece. New theater such as this is what I believe in more than anything and that is clearly why I hold it to a high standard. The general consensus of the audience was that this play was fun. Aside from Mighty Ducks, none of us have seen theater about hockey before. It felt special that it was set in Minnesota and seeing live skating on stage (along with some other stage magic) was a fun way to spend an afternoon. But the audience deserved more than that. This was a missed opportunity to create a new “The Music Man” or “HONK” for a new generation. This work lightly touched on themes of accepting outsiders and learning how to be less of an emotionally-repressed Midwesterner but didn't deliver them with enough clarity to be memorable. What we were presented with was a fun afternoon but nothing lasting or relevant. I do not make these statements lightly. Specifically: the characters were poorly written. Our protagonist is a middle school boy named Mitch; he’s been a star hockey player for all his young privileged life and he expects to stay that way forever. When a new boy moves to town and takes his spot as the top player he resents him and sets out on a plot of sabotage. As our protagonist you’d expect Mitch to have some redeeming quality, some reason to root for him and not perceive him as the villain. He does not. He has no humility, he never truly changes his ways, he gets a second chance he doesn’t deserve and yet remains as privileged and naïve at the end as he was in the beginning (which is all a commentary on the script and not the impressive performance by young Henry Constable). Likewise, the parents and most other characters are poorly developed caricatures of clichés we’ve all seen before. Seemingly, in an attempt to create ‘ordinary’ characters, the playwright created characters devoid of any interest whatsoever.
The plot was vaguely focused and scarcely captivating. Rather than feeling like a clear story, it felt like a checklist of hockey themes and Minnesota stereotypes to get through. It relied on; an unbelievable case of mistaken identity, a dream sequence that somehow effected the real world, a character who is apparently omniscient (when he knows the outcome of the big game even though no one told him), several directly self-aware references to the jumpy plot, emotional climaxes that felt contrived, and a neat and tidy ending that wasn’t deserved by any of the characters.
What the script did offer was several good talking points for young people. Anyone seeing the show was presented with thought-provoking examples of; learning empathy, compromise, non-traditional families, and learning how to better communicate. The athletic theme of the show was justified by the incredible skate-choreography. Many moments were visually stunning and one scene of a flying princess definitely inspired many a young person. Also, Alejandro Vega is the best actor in Minneapolis.
Some people may argue that this is just theater for children. That a thorough analysis is unnecessary considering no kid could ever articulate all the reasons why they do or don’t like a play. But that is clearly the reason we need to understand what is falling short (and also the reason we've come to implicitly trust CTC). Whether you think of a play by an analysis of its scenes or by your gut reaction, you are deserving of an experience that is innately captivating and consistent. We adults need to deliver all the components of a great story to our audiences of any age. If we don’t, we’re belittling both children and their grown-ups.
All that being said, go see this play. It’ll be a fun afternoon. Bring your children or your parents or your grandparents. Get ice cream afterwards. Walk around a lake. Talk about hockey and the sports you used to play. Ask your kids who their favorite character was. Ask them why Mitch was so mean and how that made Harry feel. Use this play to get your artistic child interested in sports or your athletic child interested in art. Then go back to CTC in November and see what else they have in store.
The entire run of this Children’s Theatre production has been dedicated to the late Michael Friedman. Michael wrote the music and lyrics of this show over the past six years and passed away on September 9, 2017. In addition to this piece, Friedman composed many noteworthy works of musical theater including “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.” An obituary can be found here.
In writing an honest review of this show it is not my intention to compromise the memory of Michael Friedman. Rather, it is my hope that he will be remembered as a prolific artist whose work is worthy of the highest expectations.