Review: GROW

by Lynn on April 25, 2022

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Grand Theatre, London, Ont. until April 30, 2022.

Book by Matt Murray

Music by Colleen Dauncey

Lyrics by Akiva Romer-Segal

Directed by Dennis Garnhum

Music Supervisor, music arrangement and orchestrations by Wayne Gwillim

Choreographer, Linda Garneau

Music director, Andrew Petrasiunas

Set and costumes designed by Bretta Gerecke

Lighting designed by Kevin Fraser

Projections designed by Jamie Nesbitt

Sound by Brian Kenny

A coming-of-age story, a celebration of community and the importance of a green thumb when nurturing plants, especially weed.

Note: I first saw this musical comedy in an earlier iteration in 2018 at Next Stage when the show was called Rumspringa Break! Amish teenagers often decide to take Rumspringa Break which allows them to experience the world outside the confines of their close-knit rural community. This experience happens before they are Baptized, usually at 19 years of age. The show has been expanded and developed and is now called Grow.

The Story. Hannah is a 19-year-old Amish woman who is close to being Baptized and after that, is expected to marry Samuel, her childhood sweetheart. As an Amish woman that is what is expected of her. But first she haltingly announces to her father, the religious leader of their community, that she wants to go on Rumspringa Break. She has written to an uncle in Toronto and has arranged to stay with him. Her father is not happy but will allow it if Hannah goes with her twin sister Ruth. This unsettles Ruth who wants nothing more than to stay in her small community tending the crops and plants. She has a special gift with them and can make anything grow. Asking Ruth to go with Hannah to the ‘big city’ takes Ruth out of her comfort zone. But Ruth is devoted to her sister and vice versa, and so Ruth reluctantly agrees.    

When the two sisters get to Toronto and the address where their uncle lives, they find out that the uncle moved to Florida. Hannah realizes that that must be the reason he never replied to her.  The sisters plan to make this into a positive move and depend on the kindness of the strangers in that run-down area to take them in.

A young man named Skor agrees when he learns that Ruth is good with plants. Skor has some plants that are not doing well and he needs them to be healthy or he can’t make a living. Yes, Skor grows marijuana plants (illegally) and sells the resultant ‘weed’ to his community but the stuff is not good. For the good stuff one has to go next door to “Bliss” a licensed Cannabis store owed by Alexis.

Ruth’s success with Skor’s plants blossom (sorry). Her relationship with Skor blooms (uh, sorry again).  However, the relationship between the sisters seems to wilt on the vine (ok, enough!).

The Production.  The first scene takes place in the rural Amish community. The people have come home from church to a sit-down dinner. The action takes place on Bretta Gerecke’s circular raked wood platform. Many panels hang down from the flies and rise up as the scenes change. Jamie Nesbitt’s projections flash on each panel suggesting where the scene takes place (different locations in the country/city/indoors etc.)

In the first scene, Gerecke’s costumes are traditional Amish wear: long dresses, over which are crisp, white aprons and white caps for the women; work shirts and pants and wide brimmed hats for protection from the sun for the men. In the city scenes, the clothes are contemporary: jeans, deliberately torn, funky etc. Initially Hannah and Ruth look out of place in their traditional Amish clothes when they come to the city. They eventually change and fit in.

The rise on the circular platform looks steep when a character steps onto or down from the platform. The constant rising and lowering of the many panels above the stage and the endless flashing of projections on them to suggest a change in location, is annoying, distracting and unnecessary. Surely there is a more efficient and economical way of suggesting location changes for the audience than this constant travelogue of ‘stuff’.

In the first scene director Dennis Garnhum’s quickly establishes where women fit into this Amish society. The men sit at the table, sprawled out, relaxed. Behind them, standing, are the women ready to wait on them. Only when all the food is on the table do the women sit at the table. Hannah (Arinea Hermans) frets because Ruth (Jenny Weisz) isn’t there. She’s off in the fields, singing to the corn. She finds the crops respond to it.

Quickly the relationship between the sisters is established. As Hannah, Arinea Hermans is quietly confident, in control, takes care of things, frets about her sister and ‘handles’ matters efficiently. As Ruth, Jenny Weisz seems a bit flaky (that bit about singing to the corn makes one’s eyebrows knit—but we soon unfurrow our brow when all that singing bears fruit).  Hannah is eager for her Rumspringa adventure, Ruth is hesitant, concerned. She worries about her plants and crops. She is easily convinced by Hannah to go on the adventure, perhaps because if she doesn’t go, neither can Hannah. Both Hermans and Weisz sing beautifully.

Matt Murray’s book is fresh, original and bursting with humour and insightful musings on the human condition, families, responsibility and love in the strangest places. Colleen Dauncey’s music is tuneful and melodic and Akiva Romer-Segal’s lyrics are fine in establishing the mood and world of that show. The lovely, lilting “Til the End of Days” again establishes what the women can expect. Samuel (an always expressive Izad Etemadi) joyfully sings of how he and Hannah will marry and she will cook and clean for him and give him seven sons. She is horrified. He is smiling and joyful.

When the sisters arrive in the bustling city, they are like fish out of water—from their garb to their innocent, trusting expectations. When they meet Skor, played by a physically and mentally nimble Adam Sanders, they are ‘taken in’, charmed because he appears to be a friend. And certainly when Ruth is told he has some plants needing her special touch, Ruth is won over.

Ruth’s special touch with plants has been talked about often to this point. An opportunity to prove her expertise is presented, but squandered. Ruth is shown a sickly plant in a pot. She immediately goes to it and delicately touches it and sings to it. I note that Dennis Garnhum stages people in front of the plant and around it, ignoring the plant after this moment. I thought that was a perfect opportunity to instantly show Ruth’s abilities initially with that sad plant by having it perk up and even grow a bit.  But nothing is done until a later scene with Skor’s other plants.  Why have a perfectly presented opportunity and do nothing with it? I think this moment should be rethought and addressed.

While Ruth is coming into her own in the city, where she is respected for her abilities and not laughed at because of how she gets the plants to grow, Hannah seems to be forgotten and resents it. She says that this is a recurrence from when she was in her Amish community. I think that needs to be solidified and strengthened. Perhaps when she wants to leave on her own for Rumspringa she can explain it’s because she wants to do things on her own rather than be overshadowed by her sister. The revelation coming as it does in Act II needs some shoring up in Act I.

Comment. I love the different worlds and communities of Grow and the melding of communities when one needs to be supported. The gentle message is welcome in this day and age. The music is lovely and buoyant. The lyrics conjure the world of the song and the play. The performances are strong and the characters charm. One embraces the strength of the sisterly love and how they both blossom in their own way and the paths they decide to follow. I have concerns that are noted, and I think the show will be stronger if those concerns are addressed. On the whole Grow is a smart, inventive story with a terrific score.

The Grand Theatre presents:

Playing until: April 30, 2022.

Running Time: 2 hours 20 minutes, (1 intermission)

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Kelly Monaghan April 25, 2022 at 10:36 pm

I am so sorry that I’m missing this! I saw the workshop at Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut a few years back and it was WONDERFUL! Here’s hoping the production has a life after its run at the Grand.


2 Lynn April 26, 2022 at 9:39 am

Hi Kelly Monaghan
I think we might just be in luck with future productions….I believe that is the plan…’s hoping.

Lynn Slotkin