In a strange moment of synchronicity, there are currently two musicals on the Toronto stage about a man who kills people and disposes of their bodies by feeding them to someone/something. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street has been playing at the Princess of Wales since early November, and closes on December 9. Sweeney tells the story (which we are all likely to become more familiar with after Tim Burton’s film adaptation hits theatres next month) of a vengeful barber who slits his enemies’ throats while shaving their faces, and then gets his piemaker girlfriend to bake up the bodies and serve them to the people of London in her shop. Meanwhile over at the Bluma, CanStage‘s production of Little Shop of Horrors just opened last weekend. Little Shop is all about Seymour, a geeky shopboy working at a Skid Row florist who feeds his enemies to a bloodthirsty plant from outer space. Both shows are darker musicals than, say, Dirty Dancing, but Little Shop, based on the eponymous Roger Corman 60s sci/fi flick, is decidedly the goofier of the pair. Unfortunately for CanStage, it’s also the weaker.
CanStage’s production, helmed by their current musical honcho Ted Dykstra, has some great stuff going for it, but is definitely an uneven evening. Unlike last season’s Rocky Horror Show, Dykstra manages to put on a small-cast musical at the Bluma and still fill the stage. And the cast is great. Rocky alum Ron Pederson cements his position as musical theatre geek du jour with a knock-out performance as leading man Seymour. Equally good is Patricia Zentilli as his leading lady, Audrey, a ditzy shopgirl with a habit of dating the wrong man. Zentilli’s vocal work is fantastic, and she brilliantly sells standout number “Somewhere That’s Green” (which many may be familiar with due to its Family Guy parody). Also worthy of note are Sheldon Davis, who demonstrates serious musical theatre chops as scheming florist Mushnik and Réjean Cournoyer, who’s a scream as sadistic dentist Orin. But Dykstra’s direction often feels pedestrian, ditto the choreography, and there’s a certain low-production-value look to some of the design that’s really distracting (Audrey’s wigs look like they were bought at a dollar store). Perhaps CanStage blew the budget on the giant killer plant puppet? It’s a shame too, because the moments that do work work beautifully, like the infamous dentist’s office scene, or the duet between Mushnik and Seymour.
If you haven’t seen Little Shop before, this is a fun opportunity to become familiar with the show that started the ironic musical parody craze, and does it better than a lot of the more recent ones. Pay attention to Howard Ashman’s lyrics, which are brilliant and hilarious in equal measure. Fans of the Frank Oz film should note that this production keeps with the original, darker ending the movie scrapped in favour of a more crowd-pleasing conclusion. If you can only see one musical about cannibalism over the next fortnight, do yourself a favour and cough up the bucks for the brilliant little production of Sweeney Todd, which boasts innovative staging and a cast that plays all of the instruments for the show (cool!). However, if your personal budget allows you to see two flesh-eating musical sensations, you could do much worse than catching Little Shop as well.