When hockey gets its hooks into you, it can be the devil to shake, particularly when your last name is Donato and vulcanized rubber is basically a family brand.
In part, that’s why Nolan Donato, who many nights this month goes by the name George Berger, still suits up once a week with a bunch of pals for a game at the Rodman Rink in Walpole.
“I still have a major, major passion for hockey,” said Donato, 23, tracing how he has steered his career path wide of the rink. “As a kid, that was it. I only wanted to play hockey, be like my dad and brothers. So it was definitely tough, realizing that’s not the path I felt I should take.”
Donato instead opted for the seductive footlights of the theater, the place where he could pursue his deep love for singing and acting. These days, Ted Donato’s youngest son, a 5-foot-10-inch, 150-pound former winger for the Dexter Southfield School, suits up as Berger, that long-locked hippie in “Hair,” the iconic late-1960s musical that has been brought back to life locally by the Company Theatre in Norwell.
That’s right, that Donato kid’s a hippie, dude, and will be at least until the end of the play’s run Aug. 21. In life, like hockey, you just never know how the puck is going to bounce.
The Donato clan turned out en masse for last Friday’s opener, and we can confidently report that there wasn’t a hockey fight, a flashing red light, or a Zamboni to be found in the cozy 350-seat venue. At one point, though, the joint shook like an old hockey barn when a mock-up of a Vietnam-era helicopter dipped down from the stage rafters, amid eerie, ominous flashing lights.
“We just had to bring that back,” said Zoe Bradford, decades-long owner/director of the Company Theatre. “We used that in ‘Miss Saigon’ a few years ago.”
For those old enough to remember “Hair’s” first run in Boston, at the Wilbur in the spring of 1970, the music and effects were a delightful throwback. Donato, a confident, smooth tenor, is sharp and engaging. The cast of nearly 30 rolls through the two acts with the efficiency, gusto, and confidence of a Stanley Cup champ.
(Aside from your faithful puck chronicler: Shawn Verrier, whose day job is teaching at Derby Academy, steals the spotlight in his role as Margaret Mead.)
Donato graduated from Providence College this spring with a bachelor’s degree in theater arts and was a late add to Bradford’s production. Unable to find just the right fit for Berger, she connected with him through Facebook, offering him a tryout after viewing a brief video he posted off an open audition weeks earlier in Brighton.
“I knew nothing about him or his family, you know, that his dad was some famous hockey player,” said Bradford, noting she knows little about sports. “So thank goodness for good ol’ fashioned Facebook.”
Donato’s voice, said Bradford, won her over immediately. The challenge, she knew, would be for a “blue-eyed, respectful, clean-cut kid” to don a shoulder-length wig and transform into a rebellious, at times foul-mouthed character. The wig alone was a challenge.
“It’s heavy and it’s hot,” said Donato. “I’d grow out my own hair if I could, but it wouldn’t look good on stage; my hair grows in all different directions.”
A greater challenge was the Berger persona. By his own admission, Donato is quiet and reserved, the opposite of the rebellious, edgy Berger. During his four years at PC, Donato eagerly looked forward to singing at the Sunday 10 p.m. Masses on campus, with songs such as “You Were on the Cross” and “Building My Life” among his favorites.
“That was probably the best part of college, to be honest,” he said. “It was such a good way to connect with my faith.”
Berger, whose faith community centers on sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, forced Donato to connect with a time he didn’t live through and with a character unlike any he portrayed in college musicals such as “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” “Something Rotten,” and “Violet.” It was a reach that he liked.
“I think they were a little skeptical about whether I could find that fire for playing George Berger,” he said. “I knew I had it in me. As we got further and further into rehearsal, I found that fire … someone who is rebellious and part of a revolution. It’s my first time playing a character that’s kind of, you know, crazy.”
Donato’s oldest brother, Ryan, a former Bruins draft pick, just signed a one-year contract extension with the Seattle Kraken. Jack, 24, wrapped up his hockey career this spring after four years at Harvard and aims to be a player agent. Younger sister, Maddie, 19, is a rising sophomore at the University of South Carolina.
His father, Ted, of course, played nearly 800 NHL games, more than 500 of those with the Bruins. Ted returned in 2004 to Harvard, his alma mater, and has been the men’s varsity hockey coach ever since.
Nolan left organized, career-driven hockey after high school, though he played club hockey at PC briefly his freshman year before opting only for intramural play. Along with his “Hair” role, he is also crafting a solo singing/songwriting career and plans to move to New York City next year for a shot at the big time.
“I’d love to keep pursuing theater and see where it leads me,” he said. “Go after New York for a while … see where it goes.”
Broadway can be a very tough game, one that knocks more players on their rear ends than Terry O’Reilly once sent skittering down Causeway Street. From her bit of acreage in the semi-pro theater ranks, Bradford thinks Donato may have a shot.
“I never encourage anyone to make it a career,” mused Bradford. “But if that’s all you can think about from the time you wake up until the time you go to bed, then I guess you better pursue it. We’ll help you, if we can.”
When theater gets its hooks in you, it can be the devil to shake. No matter your family name. No matter your brand.
For “Hair” performance times and ticket availability, go to https://www.companytheatre.com.
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.