Encore Michigan

World Premiere: “Hockey: The Musical” is a big, fun cheesy pizza delivered by Mitch Albom

Review May 21, 2016 David Kiley

DETROIT, Mich.–How fitting that Mitch Albom’s new show, Hockey: The Musical, is making its world premiere at The City Theatre. Not only is it connected to the HockeyTown pub/restaurant, but as the theater is part of The Ilitch Group, which also owns Little Caesar’s, the show is stuffed with enough cheese to make one think of a Stuffed Crust Deep Deep Dish Pizza.

Rather then being a rap on the show, it is important to know that the cheese is entirely intentional by Albom, whose brother, Peter, directed the show. While it may not be the tightest production I have ever seen, it is great fun, especially for hockey fans who will appreciate the humor and songs around hockey obsession, and the culture of the sport which throws together Americans, Canadians, Russians, French, Czechs, Swedes Finns and so on–all in the same league.

The premise of the scant story that carries the many tunes is goofy. God has decided that there are too many sports; my God, chess, synchronized swimming, baseball, hammer-throw and everything in between! Enough already! One of them has to go! Hockey is chosen for the axe. Stanley (Greg Trzaskoma) is tapped to save the sport, but only if he can assemble a team of five “pure souls.” He chooses hockey legends like Wayne Gretsky, Don Cherry, Jaromir Jagr, and Steve Yzerman. But God’s messenger, Guy (John Delisa), mis-spells the names and we end up with five regular folks whose names kind of sound like the intended legends: i.e. Dawn Cherry (Kelsey Pohl), Duwayne, (Taurean Hogan) Jagger (John Delisa] , Stevie (Shane O’Connor) and Terry (Trzaskoma). They have to score a sufficient number of points through song and actions to save Hockey.

HOCKEY-03--CITYThere are 21 musical numbers. Albom is credited with writing all the words and music, but some of the songs where Albom write lyrics take music from iconic songs either in public domain, or ones for which the author secured rights: “Kung Fu Fighting” (Carl Douglas); “More than A Woman” (BeeGees), “Nothing Gonna Stop Us Now” (written by Albert Hammond and Diane Warren and made popular by Starship); “I Get Knocked Down.” It is in the songs and the running gags that the cheese doth run. Music director CT Hollis does a fine job of keeping Albom’s songs and song parodies on track, and the actors all on the same journey.

The show is at its best when it is tapping into the zeitgeist of the hockey fan who has worshiped at the altar of Yzerman and Chris Chellios. Indeed, there are animations, video cameos by hockey legends and NHL footage that dot the production that are well timed and produced; during the song “Hockey Fighting,” we get video cameos of Joey Kocur and Bob Probert, known as the “Bruise Brothers” on the Red Wings. Steve Yzerman also makes a video cameo. The enormous pride that Canadians have is explored with the funny “God is a Canuck.” One of the five heroes of the story is Duwayne ( Taurean Hogan), an African-American who delivers a river of funnies about black people skating, let alone playing big-time hockey. It has the potential to go badly, but Albom and Mr. Hogan keep that particular joke where it needs to be. The show also works nicely when it taps into material only true hockey fans would get, like the strange mystique around Swedish coaches.

The cast is well chosen. Ms. Pohl’s vocals are strong and lovely, and she comes across nicely as the older version of the girl who could play hockey with the boys. Mr. Trzaskoma delivers his songs in a lovable way and personifies an octopus-throwing Joe Hockey (If you don’t get that reference, this show is probably not for you). Mr. Delisa, in his dual role, is deft and versatile, as well as doing very well here with his comedic timing, Mr. O’Connor rounds out the solid quintet. And David Dennison shows great chops with multiple roles, acting the percussion section of the cast as a British bobby, hockey ref, coach, game show host and ensemble player.

If there is a weakness in the show, it might be that Albom doesn’t quite know when to let go of a joke. Several times in the show, a player starts bursting into a familiar song from Les Mis or Sound of Music, for example, and the “song policeman” appears from off-stage to shut them down and remind them how much a song like that would cost to use. Cast members frequently exclaim, “Jesus!” and each time the voice of God says, “He’s not here.”  There are a few more like that grow hair by the end of the show. Albom seems to have an odd fixation on what it costs to license intellectual property–ironic, given his own success in this space. Yet, I don’t think the irony was the joke he was going for. And it doesn’t really land after the first one.

The bottom line is that Hockey is a fun 90 minutes with a lot of grin inducing homage to a beloved sport that does not get treated big-time in the U.S. The show will undoubtedly attract a lot of patrons who may not see another live theater show all year; just as Albom’s “Ernie,” about the late Detroit Tiger broadcaster Ernie Harwell, does. And that’s just fine.

Hockey is kind of a mash-up of a Spamalot-style (Albom admits to being very inspired by this show for his structure of Hockey) send-up silly show, and a Vegas review. Because it does such a good job of tapping into Hockey fanatalia (yeah, I just made that up), I suspect that it will be performed in every hockey town in America and Canada. And, who knows, a scene or song just might get a turn on ESPN’s annual televised ESPY Award show. But, I’m guessing, only if they pay Mr. Albom a handsome royalty to perform it?

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