It is a story so familiar it’s almost clichéd: girl meets boy, boy asks girl to marry him, girl gets impregnated by God, and a baby boy is born in a stable. It has been told thousands of times, from the biblical to first graders dressed as donkeys, and yet fundamentally the story remains the same. There is no room at the inn, the angels tell the shepherds, the three wise men give gifts… but what happened before Gabriel came along, and who are these people called Mary and Joseph anyway, and why aren’t they at home snuggled in their cozy bed instead of on a donkey when Mary is so close to having the baby believed to be the chosen son of the Lord? Perhaps at one point in the past I asked these questions, only to be told that no one knew the answers, or that that part was not important, and I began to take the official story as gospel, without much thought behind it.
There is a certain, special spark in musical theatre that gives it life, depth, heart and soul- the audience can feel it radiate from the stage, they lean in for a closer look, but can’t quite put their finger on what exactly it is. Usually the spark ignites from the very first notes to guarantee a worthwhile evening. As someone who sees a lot of musical theatre on an extremely frequent basis, often I forget all about this special spark and how powerful it can be. Then I see something like Little Shop of Horrors directed by Ted Dyskra at the Canadian Stage Company and am blown away by It.
A story about a poverty-stricken, nerdy botanist named Seymour whose careful nurturing of an exotic plant with a taste for blood not only turns his own world upside-down but wreaks havoc worldwide does not immediately sound like the perfect ingredients for a musical. However, this campy little show with its satire of musical theatre and science fiction has become one of Broadway’s most produced musicals. Its success is due to the amazing collaboration between Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, the team that would go on to gives us the classic scores to Disney’s The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991) and Aladdin (1992). With a sadistic dentist, a bluesy talking plant, one of the most awkward- yet surprisingly charming- romantic couplings in musical theatre history, clever lyrics, snappy music, a wonderfully bizarre narrative and hilarious dialogue: Ashman and Menken seem to have created a sure-fire hit.
That said, in the Canadian Stage production IT is in the astounding cast of nine brilliant performers. Ron Pederson does not simply star as the delightfully clumsy Seymour, but actually transforms into the role he has obviously carefully shaped- with beautiful clear physicality, a perfect Skid Row accent, intonations of love, awkwardness, loyalty and fierceness all mixed together and genius comic timing. He also has one of those singing voices that you wish you could bottle and keep with you for whenever you’re feeling down. It soars. It’s radiant. It has that spark. Réjean Cournoyer shows a gigantic array of his talents in playing various characters, each one both distinctive and compelling.. He is fantastically terrible as Orin,, the dentist- walking the perfect balance between eliciting humor and disgust simultaneously. His brutal strength is consistently clear- he delivers one of the most realistic across-the-face-slaps I have seen onstage- and yet his laughing fit is perfectly hysterical. I find Orin’s interaction with Seymour in this particular version especially fascinating as a complex interplay is clear between Pederson and Cournoyer’s strong, complex characters.
Also a highlight is watching Sheldon Davis and Ron Pederson dance together in the number “Mushnik and Son”, while Jenni Burke, Starr Domingue and Michelle E. White (Ronette, Crystal, Chiffon) provide the show with its constant energy, life and soul as they are musically inter-spliced into the action. The perfectly in-synch duo of Jeff Jones as the voice for Audrey II and Eric Woolfe as the puppeteer are astounding in their ability to give life to this character that surpasses audiences reacting to a puppet and beyond their perception of what constitutes “realistic” plant behaviour. Once Jeff Jones begins to sing “Feed Me,” you won’t want him to stop.
They all have got the spark to give to the show, but it is Patricia Zentilli as Audrey, the battered and bruised flower shop girl with painfully low self-esteem, who brings down the house with her rendition of “Suddenly Seymour.” Her voice alone will leave you breathless in wonder at its sheer force and simultaneous beauty, clarity and resonance- add on her shrewd sense of comedy, her ability to make audiences laugh and cry at the same time and a beautiful and truly compelling portrayal of a girl who honestly believes she deserves no better than to be handcuffed by a sadist- Zentilli is reason enough to head downtown to the Canadian Stage Theatre and check out Little Shop of Horrors now playing until December 15, 2007.
For tickets call 416. 368. 3110 or visit http://www.canstage.com/. And whatever you do: don’t feed the plant!