Stage Door Review

Grow

Monday, April 25, 2022

✭✭

music by Colleen Dauncey, lyrics by Akiva Romer-Segal, book by Matt Murray, directed by Dennis Garnhum

Grand Theatre, Spriet Stage, London

April 22-30, 2022

Ruth: “Kindness makes things grow”

The new Canadian musical Grow has been in development since 2016, when it was still called Rumspringa Break! Then it was workshopped by the Canadian Music Theatre Project at Sheridan College and made its first public appearance at the Next Stage Theatre Festival in Toronto in 2018 where it was heaped with praise. Now the Grand Theatre is presenting what it sees as the final full-length version of the show.

There’s no doubt the show is built on an excellent premise and has a lovely, sensitive conclusion. There’s also no doubt that composer Colleen Dauncey and lyricist Akiva Romer-Segal have studded the musical with lively, memorable songs. There’s also no doubt that the musical, with all these virtues, still suffers from a flawed book by Matt Murray. Murray knows where he wants to begin and knows where we wants to end, but he seems unable to move to his desired conclusion without turning a very human story in an unbelievable, artificial one.

To understand the action it is necessary to know that it is set among an Amish community somewhere in Southwestern Ontario. The Amish practise adult baptism and it is seen as a conscious choice to join the church. In the particular community of the musical, baptism occurs at age 19. This means that Rumspringa, or a period of organized teenage rebellion, must end by that age. In the show Rumspringa specifically refers to a period when Amish youth are allowed to experience the outside world in order to be certain that they they want to choose the strict Amish style of life.

The show concerns the non-identical twins Hannah (Arinea Hermans) and Ruth (Jenny Weisz), daughters of the local bishop (Sweeney MacArthur). Hannah especially wants to see what life outside their close-knit community is like since she is being pressed to get married by an earnest young man Samuel (Izad Etemadi). Hannah’s father allows her to go on Rumspringa only if Ruth accompanies her. Ruth loves plants and life in the country and has no desire to see the outside world and so unwillingly travels with Hannah to visit an uncle who lives in Toronto and has long since abandoned the Amish.

Much to their dismay, their uncle has moved to Florida with his boyfriend. Luckily, among all the unconcerned Torontonians, they find one young man, Skor (Adam Sanders), who is willing to put them up with no strings attached.

Although cannabis is now legal in Ontario, Skor still tries to sell his home-grown product at less than market prices. To Skor’s displeasure a new cannabis store called Bliss is just about to open in his neighbourhood and its owner Alexis (Masini McDermott) views Skor as a pest.

As it happens Ruth notices how poorly Skor’s plants are doing and plant-expert that she is she soon has them producing better and more abundant THC than ever before. This new strain, which they dub “Rumspringa Break”, causes Alexis’s patrons to turn away from her and her supply problems to buy Skor’s product.

As Ruth and Skor become more involved emotionally and professionally, Hannah, who does all the cooking and cleaning, is not having the Rumspringa she hoped for and, after an argument with Ruth, tells them she is going back home.

In fact, Hannah does not leave and here Murray’s book goes astray. Alexis, desperate to find out Skor’s secret hears, mistakenly, that it is Hannah who is in charge of growing his weed. So she hires Hannah to develop a “Rumspringa Break” for her. Hannah, however, knows nothing about plants.

The sudden turn to the artificial mistaken identity plot in a story that until then had been based on internal conflicts of emotions and external sisterly rivalry really ruins a story about the importance of choice that Murray established. As often happens artifice begets more artifice. Hannah, who up this point has been a totally honest person, now fails to tell Alexis that she is not the sister who has the green thumb. Her silence on this issue extends far beyond what is credible – deceiving a team of plant inspectors and planning to deceive delegates to a major cannabis convention in Toronto.

Meanwhile, Ruth and Skor can’t find Hannah when Samuel comes looking for her, even though Hannah is living in the same small neighbourhood as before. Hannah’s dispute with Ruth is not so great that Hannah need take such a drastic step as going home. It is certainly not so great that she should deliberately remain hidden from her sister.

The mistaken identity plot plus Hannah’s sudden swing out of character leads to a conclusion in which several important bits of information are passed over that Murray could usefully have employed as human-scale challenges for his heroines to overcome. Murray does have Ruth wonder whether Skor loves her for herself or just for what she can do with plants. Murray could have explored this theme to a greater extent. Unrealistically, only at the end does Ruth learn that what Skor is doing is illegal. Murray misses having Ruth deal with this reality in any way, a reality that would certainly bind her to Hannah more closely. On top of that, we find out that Skor has a criminal record, another obstacle to Ruth’s affection for Skor that Murray skips over.

How the plot will end is fairly clear by the end of the first act. Presumably, that’s why Murray introduces his artificial blocking devices to lengthen the running time and delay the outcome. The speed with which the various mistakes are cleared up and old enmities buried just shows how contrived Murray has allowed such a simple, realistic story to become.

Despite his mishandling of the plot, the great value of Murray’s book is in not mocking the Amish but rather in presenting the virtue of their way of life so that an audience can really understand its attractions. What are the benefits of technology and urban life that only prevent people from person-to-person interactions and distract people from the beauty of God’s creation? Murray’s emphasis is about people choosing the life they want to lead and he portrays two very different modes of living as equally valid choices.

Anyone who was impressed by the tunefulness of Prom Queen (now titled The Louder We Get), will know that composer Colleen Dauncey and lyricist Akiva Romer-Segal are expert song-writers. Their idiom coalesces around adult contemporary rock of the 1970s, but their music still sounds fresh. The title song, “Grow”, a lovely duet for Ruth and Skor, is a song I can imagine others will want to cover. “Wherever You Go, I Will Go” has the perfect uplifting quality to end the show on a high (no pun intended). The one song that should be rethought is “My Best Life” which starts off Act 2. The lyrics make it sound too dependent on Oprah Winfrey’s philosophy as collected in a book like Live Your Best Life (2005).

Arinea Hermans and Jenny Weisz are excellent as Hannah and Ruth. It is a pleasure simply to chart during the course of the action how their world-views change from Hannah as outgoing and Ruth as shy to just the reverse. Dennis Garnhum has directed the two to act as twins so it is no surprise that they share various habits and gestures even when their paths diverge. Both have strong but gentle voices, absolutely perfect for their roles. In fact, it’s difficult to think that anyone could better play these parts than Hermans and Weisz.

Adam Sanders, whose theatre credits have heretofore been out west, is also well-cast as the not fully honest Skor. Skor is dishevelled both in appearance and in his ethics, but crucially Sanders is able to suggest that a basically good guy lurks underneath the Artful Dodger stereotype Skor presents. Sanders shows how the presence of such an innocent and honest person as Ruth helps draw out Skor’s better side, a point that crystallizes in the song “Grow”.

Most theatre-goers in the Kitchener-Waterloo are will know Izad Ermadi from his hilarious alter-ego Leila, the bearded but ultra feminine Iranian immigrant whom Ermadi introduced in 2005 in Love with Leila which toured North America. Ermadi, however, has numerous music theatre credits and is thoroughly loveable in Grow as Samuel, Hannah’s earnest, sad-sack would-be fiancé. Ermadi is a fine singer and his duet with Hannah, “The Letters”, is one of the comedic high points of the show.

Masini McDermott holds her own as Alexis the owner of the new neighbourhood cannabis shop Bliss. McDermott makes Alexis tough and decisive, but still let’s us see that much of the hard shell Alexis shows to the world derives both from her great desire to succeed and great fear of failure. The score gives McDermott a chance to show her vocal strength is the song “Bliss” and its reprise.

Grow may end with a message about the validity of more than one style of life – secular and urban versus Amish and rural. But this message has a wide application – more urgent now than ever before – that people should be able to choose the life they want to lead.

Dennis Garnhum, who directs the show with precision and sensitivity, states of Grow after its six years of development that “we have finally arrived”. I beg to differ. Grow is definitely a show I would wish to see enter the Canadian music theatre canon, but before that can happen, the book has to turn away from any artificial plot devices, especially one as antiquated as mistaken identity.

Come From Away which went through the same development process as Grow has no such devices and neither should Grow. To succeed the focus has to be on how to confront and resolve internal human conflicts. The story has so much potential but, like Come From Away, it should be grounded in how people solve real human problems. Then the show will bloom and disseminate the way it should.

Christopher Hoile

Photo: Arinea Hermans as Hannah, Jenny Weisz as Ruth and Adam Sanders as Skor, © 2022 Dahlia Katz; Jenny Weisz as Ruth and Arinea Hermans as Hannah, © 2022 Mike Hensen;  Jenny Weisz as Ruth and Adam Sanders as Skor, © 2022 Dahlia Katz; Izad Ermadi as Samuel and Arinea Hermans as Hannah, © 2022 Dahlia Katz; Masini McDermott as Alexis (in blue-and-white striped top with ensemble of Grow, © 2022 Dahlia Katz.

For tickets visit grandtheatre.com.