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- Title: Grow
- Book by: Matt Murray
- Music by: Colleen Dauncey
- Lyrics by: Akiva Romer-Segal
- Director: Dennis Garnhum
- Actors: Jenny Weisz, Arinea Hermans, Adam Sanders, Masini McDermott
- Company: The Grand Theatre
- City: London, Ont
- Year: Runs to April 30, 2022
- COVID-19 measures: Masks and proof of vaccination required
The cannabis sector may be mostly a bust for Canadian stock-market investors, but a new marijuana-themed musical that opened at the Grand Theatre in London, Ont., last week and is aiming for a commercial run strikes me as potentially delivering excellent returns for those backing it.
Grow, a wholly original show about a pair of Amish sisters who get mixed up in the legalized pot industry and its mirror black market, is the good stuff. It’s fresh and funny with enough beautiful ballads and soaring anthems from the up-and-coming songwriting team known as Colleen and Akiva to give audiences the warm fuzzies.
First of all, I should make absolutely clear that Grow is not a stoner comedy – a niche genre that, to someone like me who doesn’t know his indica from his sativa, always feels strained.
Book writer Matt Murray, composer Colleen Dauncey and lyricist Akiva Romer-Segal are working well within the traditional musical-comedy framework with this fish-out-of-water tale.
Hannah (Arinea Hermans) and Ruth (Jenny Weisz) are 19-year-old Amish twins – and, as per a rite of passage known as rumspringa, they are allowed to leave their segregated community in rural Ontario and check out the modern world before choosing whether to be baptized and stay for good.
Hannah, who has a suitor named Samuel (Izad Etemadi) very eager to get married and start a family, surprises her father by deciding to take the opportunity to go to Toronto and visit her estranged uncle.
In accordance with her late mother’s wishes, however, she can only do so if she brings along Ruth (Jenny Weisz), an odd duck and excellent gardener who sings to flowers and is only very reluctantly convinced to accompany her sister.
Ruth’s fears are justified the moment the twins arrive in Toronto, when they are unable to locate their uncle.
Near the expected address, Hannah and Ruth instead encounter a rather scuzzy-looking pot dealer named Skor (Adam Sanders) who has recently fallen on hard financial times.
His poorly sourced street weed is having trouble competing with the quality of kush to be found at a newly legal cannabis shop called Bliss, run by the entrepreneur Alexis (Masini McDermott).
When Skor learns of Ruth’s prowess with plants, he offers the sisters a place to stay – and entices them to work in his basement grow-op with a spiel about marijuana’s medicinal properties and a screed about family farms being crushed by corporate agriculture. He omits one important fact, however – the legalization of marijuana they’ve heard about does not apply to his business.
If the premise seems a stretch, it all makes sense within the internal logic of musical comedy. There is plenty of theatrical history informing the show from the classical plots involving naive small-town twins you’ll find in Plautus or Shakespeare to more contemporary satirical fare like Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s The Book of Mormon.
You might detect nods to Little Shop of Horrors and Candide too – but, unlike Dauncey and Romer-Segal’s previous musical, The Louder They Get, this one never seems derivative or done-before.
What makes Grow work so delightfully are its surprises, like the unlikely relationship between Ruth and Skor that blossoms in a lovely first-act song called Grow and deepens in a second-act scorcher called The One I Choose. These two emerge from their character-part cocoons to become swoon-worthy romantic leads with the help of the sweet and strange performances of Weisz and Sanders.
And yet, Grow’s creators, in a different way than the Amish, know we live in a Wicked world now – and so they are smart to never let the relationship between the sisters get too far out of focus as Hannah gets involved in her own dopey shenanigans.
It’s always tricky to pull off representation of a religious community in a comedy – but I found the playwright Murray and lyricist Romer-Segal struck just the right level of irreverence.
Indeed, Samuel, Hannah’s suitor who never strays from his religions and way of life, goes on one of the show’s best journeys from ridiculous to lovable. Etemadi’s scene-stealing performance climaxes with a song about how the Amish never “take the easy way out” that is one of the show’s hilarious high points
Grow’s urban creators have more trouble figuring out how to depict Toronto on stage, actually. The traditional musical comedy demands a chorus of villagers or townspeople, but where do you find that sense of community in a multicultural city that’s a mosaic? What is the sound of Toronto?
Whatever it is, it’s not the song Troubles that currently establishes the location. Director Dennis Garnhum’s production relies on Jamie Nesbitt’s projections of Toronto stores and landmarks to set the scene, but he doesn’t seem to have figured out what exactly the open stage is meant to represent in that moment – a park, a city square, an alley? Designer Bretta Gerecke’s costumes also seem indecisive -and Murray’s writing briefly betrays its pantomime roots in its blurry depiction of Skor’s customers.
And yet, this season, I’ve seen a number of new musicals on commercial stages in Toronto and on Broadway that had much bigger problems. By contrast, Grow, which has had its budget at the not-for-profit Grand enhanced by $450,000 raised by Come From Away producer Michael Rubinoff, seems ready to go public with just minimal polishing.
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