From One Theatre Reviewer to Another

ron pederson as seymour
 
I take issue with Richard Ouzounian, theatre critic of the Toronto Star. I do not know whether to be scathing or to be respectful and polite is a more compelling way to express myself, but since I have arrived in Toronto I have been constantly baffled and saddened in reading his reviews. I know it’s his job to critique. A very good argument could be made that he holds Canadian theatre to a high standard and this is a positive, but, I am unclear what exact standard it is, and curious whether he has any suggestions how Artistic Directors, producers and Canadian theatre makers can improve themselves, or whether his job description simply ends with ripping shows apart. I have dismissed him in the past, usually in remembering the script to his musical Emily, which as much as I had personal investment in wanting to read it, I simply could not- I felt Montgomery roll in her grave, and never looked back. What could he know, I thought, we have different tastes it’s clear, and that’s okay, surely. However, his review for Little Shop of Horrors sent me over the edge. I’m not exactly sure why.
 
I find his constantly beating down of Canadian theatre, especially Canadian musical theatre, to be doing a massive disservice to the citizens of Toronto. In an age where the majority of Canadians do not venture out to attend the theatre at all, but stay inside watching craft-less television programs and playing video games, Ouzounian is positioned with an opportunity to promote Canadian theatre and Canadian actors, and instead he more often than not uses his platform to tear productions limb from limb and rip often beautiful and compelling performances to shreds. No one needs Ouzounian to tell them why they shouldn’t venture out into the cold of winter in Toronto and support Canadian theatre. However, it would be nice if someone made a case why theatre should be a priority in Canadian lives before it disappears altogether. Perhaps then he wouldn’t have to write reviews with titles such as “If They Only Had A Budget.”
 
It is obvious that I am in a biased position when it comes to Little Shop of Horrors. I care about every single person standing on that stage, as a person first, and then as an actor. Most of them I don’t know very well, some not at all- but I still care that they succeed because that is the sort of person I am. I have chosen to champion Canadian theatre in the position I am forging for myself, to support the actors whose talents I don’t think can be denied. I like being a little light in the road; I think that’s important. I don’t think Ouzounian needs to champion my cause, but I would like to see him step up with a little more balance.
 
I think what struck me with his review of Little Shop of Horrors was how much Ouzounian missed. It seemed to me like he was intent on finding fault with the show from the moment it began, perhaps because it did not fit with what he had expected from Ted Dykstra. In the review he said, “I hoped they had some inventive reason up their sleeve for picking it and that director Ted Dykstra would illuminate the work in some crazy new way.” Firstly, Toronto is not New York, no matter how many Louis Vuitton handbags and Starbucks coffees it sells, Toronto’s theatre community is not comparable to Broadway because we don’t have that many theatres and we don’t have that many shows. In New York, directors have to be creative when they want to remount Sweeney Todd or Company because they are competing with forty-five other musicals, not to mention all the plays and special events going on constantly. Plus, there are constant college and community productions of these shows going on all the time. In New York, “you gotta get a gimmick if you wanna get ahead.” Patti Lupone plays the TUBA, now that is something that will get New Yorkers in to see Sweeney Todd for the third time. In Toronto, it seems silly to try to turn a book musical into a concept show, especially if a large portion of the audience has never seen a professional version of the show.
 
Why is Canadian Stage doing this show, Ouzounian asks. I think the answer is simple. Canadian Stage is a subscription based not-for-profit theatre company, and you only have to attend a few shows there and look around to see who their audience is- predominantly older, retired folks who have the money to pay $70.00 to attend a night at the theatre once every month and a half. A theatre, like anything, cannot hope to thrive in the future if over half of its customers are entering a phase of their lives when going to the theatre may soon become impractical or impossible. The Canadian Stage Company is smart to appeal to the younger generations. There is the generation that grew up watching this film, who may bring their children along if they have them, and there is the college and high school generation who will be intrigued at least by a musical that is campy, and self parodying and more about the blood and great tunes and less concerned with being intellectually self-involved.
 
I had the privilege of watching the audience out of the corner of my eye both times I have seen Little Shop of Horrors. As far as the eye could see at the Bluma Appel Theatre were Torontonian theatergoers utterly engrossed in what was going on onstage. A girl a few seats down from me was leaning so far forward, I’m sure she would have crawled onto the stage if she had been allowed. The performance was constantly being interrupted by applause, cheers and laughter- especially when Ron Pederson and Patricia Zentilli brought the house down with their astonishing version of “Suddenly Seymour.”
 
Perhaps the problem with Ouzounian is that as an occupational hazard, he has really seen it all. That may explain why he has the urge for everything to be done in “crazy new ways.” However, I think he needs to remember that the people of Toronto have not seen it all- most of the people in Toronto don’t go to plays, or musicals at Canadian Stage. Some of them probably have never gone to see a play because they keep getting scared away by awful reviews. A bad review by Ouzounian is not going to scare away Canadian Stage’s subscription members. The older crowd who is more likely to have “seen it all”, will probably still go. The sad truth is that a bad Ouzounian review most likely dissuades the people who haven’t seen that much theatre at all. These people most likely will not be judging by the Ouzounian standard, and therefore might actually see an entirely different production than the one portrayed in The Star. I feel that is the true tragedy of Richard Ouzounian.
 
I feel sorry for him in truth. I am sorry that he seems to have lost the ability to feel the sheer power of joy that still greets me whenever an overture starts. I am sorry that he chooses to focus his attention on some ideal in his head, rather than enjoying the reality offered to him onstage. I feel compelled to speak in particular to Ron Pederson, who I watched from the third row, and whose performance is so all-encompassing and detailed, you could watch him, and only him, for the entire show, I think, and feel as though you had gotten your money’s worth. I don’t understand what the fact that Ouzounian doesn’t think Pederson is actually a nerd has to do with Pederson’s portrayal of Seymour.
 
That aside, Ouzounian is in a lucrative position at The Star and with power comes responsibility. It may be easier sometimes to dismiss art, to write wishy-washy reviews on what we perceive as being trite or ordinary, but I believe that a brave man who wanted to truly promote, champion and foster theatre in his own community would take a firmer stance to create something constructive and encouraging. Richard Ouzounian, however, impersonates an impassioned theatre lover without ever really becoming one. I don’t believe for a second that he’s the musical obsessed nerd driven by his love of theatre to write reviews. I think that is what is missing, more so in Ouzounian than in any show playing in Toronto.

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