by Lynn on August 20, 2023

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Capitol Theatre, Port Hope, Ont. Runs until Sept. 3, 2023.

Book and lyrics by Howard Ashman

Music by Alan Menken

Directed by Rob Kempson

Music director, Jeff Newberry

Choreographer, Genny Sermonia

Sound by Deanna H. Choi

Set by Brandon Kleiman

Costumes by Joshua Quinlan

Lighting by Michelle Ramsay

Cast: Joel Cumber

Michael De Rose

Amir Haidar

Sierra Holder

Taylor Lovelace

Tyler Murree

Chris Tsujiuchi

Tahirih Vejdani

Michelle Yu

Terrific in every way.

The Story. This is about a controlling plant and its insatiable appetite for an unusual kind of food. This is not necessarily a show for people with a green thumb, because chances are the plant would have bitten off the green thumb and then some. It’s also about a lovely woman named Audrey, who works in the shop, and Seymour who also works in the shop and secretly loves Audrey. The shop is struggling until the notoriety of the odd plant comes to the attention of the media and prosperity abounds, except there is trouble. That plant is really controlling.

The Production. Howard Ashman and Alan Menken are celebrated in the musical theatre universe. The book and lyrics are by Howard Ashman. The music is by Alan Menken. And while it’s a musical, it’s based on the film by Roger Corman.

Brandon Kleiman has created a beautifully grungy set for skid row, which is where Mr. Mushnik has his flower shop. There are garbage cans and litter outside the shop. A chorus of three: Ronnette (Sierra Holder), Chiffon (Taylor Lovelace) and Crystal (Michelle Yu) comment/sing on the goings on and act as the conscience of the piece. They are wonderful.

The outside of the shop is colourful and even inviting. Two walls come together in a kind of triangle shape, enclosing the flower shop. Then the walls separate revealing the door in which customers enter. It’s colourful inside with a few plants and flowers initially to illuminate the hard times that Mr. Mushnik and his shop are going through. The shop seems to be a haven for misfits. Mr. Mushnik is doing terrible business and feels he might have to close.

His shop assistant, Audrey, is a lovely woman but her dentist boyfriend Orin, likes to inflict pain, usually on Audrey. She often comes to work with a black eye, a broken arm etc. and it’s bully Orin who has done it. All Audrey’s friends tell her that Orin is no good and she should leave him, but Audrey finds excuses for him.

Also in the shop is Seymour, a mild-mannered, shy, awkward man, secretly in love with Audrey. Seymour loves plants and experimenting with them, creating new versions of plants. He has created an unusual plant he has named Audrey II after Audrey, of course. Sometimes Audrey II thrives and sometimes it wilts, in spite of being watered. One day Seymour is puttering with roses and accidentally pricks his finger, draws blood and Audrey II perks up.  

Seymour is perceptive.

He squeezes a few drops of his blood over Audrey II which really perks it up.  Seymour is horrified about how to feed the plant. Audrey II grows. And another oddity of the plant is that it can talk—“FEED ME!” is the usual comment.

The media become interested and suddenly the flower show is thriving, certainly since this novelty plant keeps growing. Audrey, the real one, suddenly notices Seymour.

Considering Audrey II’s penchant for blood and guts, can one assume that Audrey II might take an abusive bully off the streets once and for all? I’ll never tell, but the prospects are horrifying and hilarious.

After a rocky start the production is fine. There are various sizes of the Audrey II puppets and they are mighty impressive. It looks like it has a mouth with teeth, and it talks in a deep, demanding voice (bravo to Chris Tsujiuchi for the expressive, commanding voice).  The cast is microphoned as is the unseen band and you can hear every single word.

Audrey, the lovely woman, is played by Tahirih Vejdani. In her compelling, composed performance Tahirih Vejdani illuminates Audrey’s trusting, subservient behaviour with Orin. She is more confident with Seymour, once she realizes he likes her.  And Vejdani can sing beautifully—it’s a clear, strong voice that adds another dimension to Audrey.

Amir Haidar plays Seymour. Amir Haidar makes Seymour so eager to please. He pines for Audrey and finally shows his true, loving colours.  He too sings beautifully and has the energy and verve of a person who comes into his own when love enters into it.

Michael de Rose plays Orin with total joy and glee, whether he is abusing Audrey or not.  In its way characters are just trying to get through the day and find happiness.

It was directed with invention, a fast pace and great humour by Rob Kempson.

About that rocky start to the production. Usually the audience is let into the theatre a half-hour before the production is supposed to start. For this opening night, we were still waiting in the lobby for that whole half-hour. One heard rumblings of ‘technical difficulties.’ Frustrating. One could while away the time drinking (bad if one is reviewing, or really even before a show when one must be alert) or eating popcorn. They sell popcorn at the Capitol Theatre in Port Hope. I was hoovering down the popcorn, patience waning with every hoovered kernel.  It’s so frustrating waiting in a packed lobby and not be told anything.

Once we were given the ok to go into the theatre, we were seated quickly and then Rob Kempson, who is also the artistic director, did his regular greeting from the stage, with the land acknowledgement. Fortunately he is also one of these thoughtful arts leaders who believes he must be transparent with the audience. So he told us about the ‘difficulties.’

At 7:40 pm for an 8:00 pm show, Rob was at dinner at one of the restaurants in Port Hope. Erin Pierce, the charming, efficient managing director, had to find him because there was trouble.  Apparently, a recent storm knocked out the electrics for the keyboard—I understand a keyboard is vital in a musical. The show could not start without it.

So being a calm man, Rob Kempson looked around the restaurant/table and asked those assembled if anyone had a keyboard lying around. One of the people at the table did. It was in her trunk so she just drove to the theatre, set it up and the show went on. Port Hope is a lovely town that is home to a lot of musicians, actors, and artists…you can usually get help of every kind there.

Comment.  Little Shop of Horrors is a problematic musical—a woman is regularly beaten up by her abusive boyfriend. A destructive plant wants to take over the world. Should theatres really consider doing such a thorny show where there might have been a time when such terrible behaviour was accepted? Rob Kempson and his team pondered the same question(s) and the answer is obvious. Of course you do these thorny shows with ethical questions. You don’t ‘cancel’ them because they deal with uncomfortable subjects. You learn from that world and know the difference between acceptable behaviour and not. Rough justice was doled out here. Such behaviour of Orin and Audrey II is not tolerated and other characters in the show agreed. Bad behaviour should be addressed and stopped or realized.

Rob Kempson in his program note said that some behaviour in the show between characters might have been looked at with an unfavourable eye, but one learns from that by facing it. If one hides it, then one is doomed to repeat history because we didn’t learn from it.

Little Shop of Horrors is funny, dark, has beautiful and moving songs and a problematic story. It’s got just the right mix of stuff to keep an audience laughing at the edge of their seat. It’s at the Capitol Theatre in Port Hope. They do wonderful theatre there.

Capitol Theatre Presents:

Runs until Sept. 3, 2023.

Running time: 2 hours (1 intermission)

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