Little Shop of Horrors: what went wrong (according to me)

publicity photo for Little Shop of Horrors

The plant, Audrey II, with Seymour (the charming Tenaj Williams)
(Photo by Moonrider Productions)

This is my fifth draft of this review.

Previous drafts have started with “Free the bimbo!” and “This production could accurately be renamed Little Shop of Crippling Good Intentions.”

Overall, I don’t think the production succeeds.

But I’m out of snappy ledes, so let’s get right to the analysis — as soon as we’ve covered the synopsis.

In Howard Ashman’s book for Little Shop of Horrors, Seymour Krelborn, a timid assistant in Mr. Mushnik’s flower shop on Skid Row, discovers an weird little plant during a solar eclipse. Seymour is smitten with Audrey, Mr. Mushnik’s other employee, but she is in the sway of Orin Scrivello, her emotionally and physically abusive boyfriend.

Yes, this is a musical in which domestic violence is a major dynamic — and sometimes it’s played for laughs.

How could domestic violence be funny? [Read more…]

Million Dollar Quartet: artistry and marketing

publicity photo for Million Dollar Quartet at the Arts Club Theatre, Vancouver

The video design is the coolest thing.
(Set by Patrick Rizzotti. Actors: Emma Pedersen and Jay Clift
Photo by Moonrider Productions)

Director Bobby Garcia’s production of Million Dollar Quartet is so slick. His direction is tight, the design is fantastic, and the cast has talent pouring out of them. But I also felt like I was being marketed to and that significantly cut into my enjoyment. It might not cut into yours.

In Million Dollar Quartet, book writers Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux fictionalize a real-life event. On December 4, 1956, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins converged on the Sun Records recording studio run by Sam Phillips in Memphis, Tennessee — and they jammed.

All the singers were signed to Sun Records at some point, which places Phillips, their mentor, at the centre of this story. Lewis is desperate to be signed by him. Others may be moving on.

[Read more…]

Teenage Dick: Everything I try sounds like a double entendre, so you fill in this headline

publicity photo for Teenage Dick

Cadence Rush Quibell, Christopher Imbrosciano, Jennifer Lines, and Marco Walker-Ng in Teenage Dick
(Photo by Moonrider Productions)

Although it contains things to admire, this production of Teenage Dick feels too much like an afterschool special or not great theatre for young people.

Teenage Dick is playwright Mike Lew’s reimagining of Shakespeare’s Richard III as a high school drama. Shakespeare’s Richard is a murderously ambitious “bunch-backed toad.” (The historical figure’s recently discovered bones testify he probably had scoliosis.) In Lew’s retelling, the junior class secretary, seventeen-year-old Richard Gloucester, who has cerebral palsy, has his eye on the “throne” of the school presidency. A hated outcast by his own account, Richard sets out to improve his social standing — and chances of election — by dating Anne Margaret, who used to go out with Eddie, the stereotypically dim-witted football player and current president, who bullies Richard. [Read more…]

The Cull: revelatory design and direction

publicity photo for The Cull

I wasn’t expecting this stylized staging of The Cull. (Photo by Moonrider Productions)

Not to take anything away from the actors or anybody else, the real stars of this premiere stage production of The Cull are director Mindy Parfitt and set designer Amir Ofek. Their treatment of Michelle Riml and Michael St. John Smith’s script elevates it spectacularly.

As written, the play is naturalistic. In their 12,000-square-foot home, Nicole and Paul are hosting a twenty-fifth wedding anniversary dinner for their friends, the decidedly less wealthy Emily and Lewis. Lynne, another friend from their high school years, is also there to celebrate, along with her super-rich husband, John.

I first heard The Cull as an audio play in January of 2022. (Covid had scuttled the Arts Club’s plans to stage it.) Back then, I couldn’t tell what kind of world the play was trying to inhabit. Was it a sitcom? A melodrama?

But, with a stunning set of decisions, Parfitt and Ofek have established stylistic coherence. As I said, the baseline of the written script is naturalism: there are all sorts of references to food prep (slicing, tasting) and specific props, including bamboo napkins. But Parfitt and Ofek have discarded physical naturalism.

Ofek’s set is a gigantic square that looks like a thick, stylized slab of wood. The only other set piece is an enormous, exquisite chandelier: it looks like a collection of simple, delicate seashells.

On the slab, the actors sit on white, modernist chairs.

The characters still talk about tasting the food and folding the napkins — but they don’t do any of those things, which adds a revelatory level of abstraction. We can suddenly see how their conversations are rituals of dominance, alliance, and information seeking.

Parfitt’s setting of the actors’ movements, including their arrangements of the chairs, is satisfyingly choreographic. And the slab spins! It’s on a revolve, which makes the choreography feel even more sophisticated.

[Read more…]

Forgiveness: Why isn’t it more moving?

publicity photo for Forgiveness

Yoshie Bancroft and Kevin Takahide Lee (Photo by Moonrider Productions)

Considering the emotional nature of the material — the internment of Japanese Canadians during World War II and the abuse of prisoners of war in Japanese prison camps — Forgiveness falls surprisingly flat.

Playwright Hiro Kanagawa’s stage adaptation is drawn from Mark Sakamoto’s memoir. The story is about Sakamoto’s grandmother Mitsue, a Vancouverite who was forced to labour with her family on a sugar beet farm in Alberta, and his grandfather Ralph from Québec’s Magdalen Islands, who spent most of the war in ruthlessly cruel POW camps.

According to the GoodReads website, Forgiveness is 272 pages long. Maybe that makes it unadaptable — at least without cutting more material. In his stage version, Kanagawa has crammed in so many plot points that, even with an almost three-hour running time, the play feels frantic, like it’s skittering across the surface of a deeper story. Director Stafford Arima’s loud, busy production exacerbates the problem. [Read more…]

The Cull: Focus!

Stephen Lobo: More of this guy (and his character) please.

What world are we in?

The Cull, which was written by Michele Riml and Michael St. John Smith, and which is being presented as an audio play, starts off as a bougie sitcom. Nicole and her husband Paul are hosting a dinner party — in their 12,000-square-foot house — to celebrate the twenty-fifth wedding anniversary of their not wealthy friends Emily and Lewis. Lynne, a close friend from their youth, is also there with her husband John, who is seriously rich. The three couples banter and set up the rules for the evening: no phones, no business talk, no politics … “a little bit of sex is okay.” [Read more…]

Dolly Parton’s Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol: Happy slappy

Christmas Present (Andrew Wheeler) counsels Scrooge (David Adams). (Photo: Moonrider Productions)

Act 1 is weird. Technically, it’s slick, but it’s so aggressively entertaining and relentlessly uplifting that, watching it, I started to feel like I was on a ride in Disneyland — or maybe Dollywood. Are those real people on the stage or are they robots?

In Charles Dickens’s telling, A Christmas Carol is scary: it’s a ghost story. But, in Dolly Parton’s Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol, which is set in Jefferson County, East Tennessee in 1936, there’s little room for genuine darkness — and the adaptation is often flat as a result.

Marley doesn’t appear ghoulishly in Scrooge’s doorknocker, for instance, and, when he does show up, Marley an Irish song-and-dance man. In flashback scenes, the script refers to him as Old Man Marley, but, in this production at least, he’s as energetic as Jiminy Cricket. And, when the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come shows Scrooge the aftermath of his own death, we don’t see the bleakness of impoverished women squabbling over Scrooge’s bedclothes, we see the town erupting in a hootenanny.

The breathlessness of director Bobby Garcia’s production exacerbates the sense of emotional impenetrability. Playing Scrooge, David Adams yells all through Act 1.

But … there’s lots to like and the source material is so strong that, even in this adaptation, eventually, it’s moving. [Read more…]

Beneath Springhill: excellent performance, dull material

publicity photo for Beneath Springhill, Arts Club Theatre

Jeremiah Sparks is terrific in Beneath Springhill,
but the material doesn’t support him.(Photo by Moonrider Productions)

When does a pile have no depth? When it’s a pile of clichés.

I can understand why programming Beneath Springhill: The Maurice Ruddick Story might have looked like a good idea. This solo musical is based on the real-life experience of Maurice Ruddick, a Black Canadian miner who was trapped underground for nine days in a mining disaster in Springhill, Nova Scotia in 1958. Apparently, his singing helped to keep a small group of fellow survivors alive.

With Covid and climate change, the world is going to hell, so I can understand why the Arts Club’s artistic director Ashlie Corcoran would be attracted to a story of endurance and triumph. And, given the uncertainties of the pandemic and the financial hit that theatres have taken, it makes sense to program a one-person show.

But there are no ideas in Beneath Springhill and there’s virtually no dramatic tension. [Read more…]

Someone Like You: Cyrano de Bergerac but more on the nose

Politically, Christine Quintana’s new audio play Someone Like You is busy: it takes on fat phobia, racism, misogyny, and the capitalist commodification of human longing. That’s a worthy line-up of targets. Too worthy, as it turns out. Thematically, Someone Like You becomes a checklist — and it goes on for more than two hours. [Read more…]

Unexpecting (the audio play, from 2021): we should expect more

Arts Club's poster for UnexpectingBronwyn Carradine is a recent alumnus of the Arts Club’s Emerging Playwrights’ Unit. That means she’s veryfreshly baked, but she’s already demonstrating considerable control of craft in her new audio play Unexpecting.

Carradine’s story is about lesbian couple Annie and Jo. They fervently want to adopt a baby but their careers as a writer and painter/gallery owner hit the skids just as they become finalists in a selection process that will be decided by Sawyer, the biological mom-to-be. [Read more…]

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