Nine years, a completely new production and a few rewrites haven’t done a thing to improve the commercial possibilities of “The Beautiful Game,” the 2000 Andrew Lloyd Webber-Ben Elton musical that married soccer to the troubles in Northern Ireland. Under the fresh title “The Boys in the Photograph,” Elton’s staging of this new version premiered at the Manitoba Theater Center earlier this year and now comes to Toronto under the Mirvish Prods. banner as the company’s first subscription show of the season.
It’s hard to see why anyone thought this property had a possible commercial life in North America. Even in London, where many critics proved generously disposed toward the original, directed by operatic wunderkind Robert Carsen, the show ran less than a year. Now, almost a decade later, it’s hard to envision any kind of a future for a musical about soccer and Irish politics, especially couched in Elton’s broader-than-broad style of writing and production.
The play starts in 1969 with a group of young Catholic footballers in Belfast, the “boys” of the title. They have their whole lives ahead of them and their team is destined for victory, but Elton lets us know at every turn that the political world outside won’t let it happen.
The first act alternates so drastically between political messages and old-fashioned cartoons of frisky young folk at play that it all starts to seem like an aprocryphal Rooney-Garland vehicle called “Babes in Belfast” (“Hey, my dad’s got a bomb in the barn!”).
John Kelly (Tony LePage) and Mary McGuire (Erica Peck) are the couple intended to win our hearts: he, the champion athlete, and she, the non-violent protestor. We follow them through a cute courtship, cloying engagement and supposedly touching marriage, only to have Elton destroy their wedding night, first with a bunch of bad male-performance jokes (“Hope there’s lead in my pencil when I lose my cherry”) and then with a contrived phone call from an IRA buddy who needs a ride to safety.
Of course, it works out badly, with John getting arrested and becoming a terrorist while Mary, pregnant and alone, keeps the faith. Originally John remained a terrorist — the plot point Elton and Lloyd Webber felt contributed to the show’s initial failure. Now he shifts allegiances in an 11th-hour change of mind that looks like an alternate ending tacked on for the DVD version.
The young Canadian cast tries hard, especially LePage as an appealing John, and “We Will Rock You” veteran Peck as a powerful-voiced Mary. But energy is no substitute for having something worthwhile to act or sing. Elton’s script consists of either one-liners or slogans; his lyrics are monosyllabic to a fault, and Lloyd Webber’s music is largely a series of anthems reprised at random until one of them sticks in our head.
It’s interesting that the sole solid hit from “The Beautiful Game,” a song called “Our Kind of Love,” is now gone from the show, reportedly because Lloyd Webber has decided to recycle it for his upcoming “Phantom of the Opera” sequel, “Love Never Dies.”
Production values look decidedly cheap, with Brian Perchaluk’s uninspired unit set largely comprising two apartment towers that the actors keep turning around to no real purpose. Tracey Flye’s choreography fails at portraying both soccer and street violence, making everything look like warmed-over “Riverdance.”
Unlike the boys from Jersey, it’s unlikely that their Irish cousins will see much life after their show closes in Toronto Nov. 1.