By Keith Tomasek, August 7, 2023
Rob Kempson, Artistic Director of the Capitol Theatre in Port Hope, has assembled a stellar cast and crew for the production of “Little Shop of Horrors,” which runs from August 11 to September 3.
Stratford Festival fans might recognize Tahirih Vejdani from her work in “HMS Pinafore” and “Treasure Island,” to name a few. In “Little Shop of Horrors,” Vejdani plays the sweet and vulnerable Audrey.
Vejdani isn’t the only one working on the show with Stratford credits. The costume designer Joshua Quinlan just completed their work on this year’s hit show “Casey and Diana.” Lighting designer Michelle Ramsay worked on another sold-out hit at Stratford, “Women of the Fur Trade.”
Genny Sermonia is choreographing the Capitol Theatre’s production of “Little Shop of Horrors.”
Sermonia’s choreography is on stage now at the Shaw Festival’s “Gypsy,” which is receiving RAVE reviews! She also appeared in several Stratford Festival productions, including Gary Griffin’s “West Side Story.” Sermonia also worked on three of the Ross Petty pantomimes at the Wintergarden Theatre in Toronto.
Another former Ross Petty company member is Michael De Rose, who plays Orin, the dentist in “Little Shop of Horrors.” I’m looking forward to seeing De Rose play Orin because of De Rose’s overlap with Dan Chameroy. In 2018, when Chameroy could not appear in the Ross Petty pantomime because he was held over in Stratford’s “The Rocky Horror Show,” De Rose created the role of Sugarbum to replace Chameroy, who played Plumbum for years.
Audiences loved De Rose’s Sugarbum, who could both belt out a tune and get uproarious laughs, so he returned to the Wintergarden in 2019 when Chameroy played Orin the dentist in Donna Feore’s Stratford Production of “Little Shop.”
There’s no doubt Kempson has brought a fantastic team to Port Hope, population 17,000, located one hundred kilometres from Toronto.
I asked Kempson, who is directing “Little Shop of Horrors” at the Capitol Theatre in Port Hope, a few questions about his ambitious work there.
1) “Little Shop of Horrors” is an entertaining mix of music, murder and campy fun. What is the secret to your success in choosing the programming for The Cameco Capitol Arts Centre?
My approach to programming is to always answer the question of “why here and why now,” so with every show I select, I’m constantly thinking about its relevance in the context of this community at this time.
For me, “Little Shop of Horrors” is the ultimate in camp classic–which feels like the perfect tone for a mid-summer musical.
Our approach to everything at the Capitol is the spirit of reinvention though, so this will be a “Little Shop” unlike any that you’ve seen/heard before. The goal is to honour the parts of the legacy that speak to us now, without feeling bound by those traditional approaches.
2) After their work on “Little Shop of Horrors,” lyricist Howard Ashman and composer Alan Menken went on to write Broadway type hits for Disney films, including “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “Aladdin.” How did you find a balance between “Little Shop’s” Broadway sound and its Motown sound?
Step one is always to hire the most incredible group of performers and musicians who can make big choices in everything they do. That’s the secret to achieving balance (and joy) with any musical theatre project. But I think it’s also about leaning into our own knowledge of the forms at play here.
The writers are both white men, so everything in the show that rings in a different style is already an artist’s interpretation of that genre. We’ve taken a similar approach–encouraging our artists to interpret those musical styles themselves (under the guidance of Music Director Jeff Newberry)–and I think we’ve achieved a pretty great mix of Broadway flavour and Motown magic.
3) How did you audition the puppeteers who bring Audrey, the flesh-eating plant, to life?
Our puppeteer, Joel Cumber, was initially hired as Ensemble for the show and it wasn’t until later that we approached him about puppeting Audrey II as well.
He was eager to take on the challenge, and that willingness to explore and experiment with a new skill set is the right attitude when making any casting decision. Joel’s puppet work is supported by our Puppet Consultant, Adam Francis Proulx, who is well-known across the industry for his unique approach to puppeteering.
4) You’ve attracted terrific talent to Port Hope. How do you convince theatre to artists from outside the region to commit to spending a few weeks in Port Hope?
At the Capitol, we work hard to create a space where artists want to collaborate.
Artistic Excellence is at the core of our Strategic Plan, so we support that effort by creating exciting artistic opportunities alongside a supportive environment in order for artists to do their best work.
We aim to provide opportunities for artists that they might not receive otherwise through non-traditional casting, seeking new generation artists, and putting together teams who share mutual respect for one another.
It’s a bit like all of the best parts of summer camp when we get the right team together, and that is always the goal.
5) You’ve had great success directing for Toronto audiences; what’s different about directing in Port Hope?
Audiences in Port Hope are remarkably diverse, but they are also somewhat less conscious of what it takes to make professional theatre.
Sharing the insides of the process, through First Day Meet & Greets, special backstage events, and other educational sessions, is an important part of our work–and the work of any small-town theatre. We want folks to expect artistic excellence, while also understanding that not everything will be exactly to their taste.
In Toronto, I’m directing for an audience who generally share similar values, vote in the same way, and have a basic knowledge of theatre-making. But in Port Hope, I’m creating a shared experience for an audience of people who come from very diverse experiences, identities, and backgrounds, and I take that responsibility very seriously.
Our 2023 season is titled “For Everyone” and that is what it is–work that can appeal to a broad cross-section of the population, while also celebrating diversity of our community and our world.
EITHER / OR
Select one from each pair and explain your selection in two sentences.
Creepy or Comic?
Definitely comic. I’m scared of scary movies, so my approach to the darker bits of Little Shop is to lean heavily into the comedy.
Dentist or Botanist?
I’m not much of a greenthumb myself, so I think I’ll have to go with dentist. But I wouldn’t want the dentist in this show working on my mouth.
Train or the 401?
I long for better train service to Port Hope, so until then, it’s mostly the 401 for me.
Destiny’s Child or The Chicks (Dixie Chicks)
This is a real Sophie’s Choice for me. Any band where harmonies sit at the core of their work is a good band for me. And both groups have such a theatrical approach to their songwriting and performance style.
Little Shop of Horrors
August 11 – September 3
Capitol Theatre in Port Hope
20 Queen St, Port Hope, ON L1A 2Y
Book Online: https://capitoltheatre.com/
Call the box office: 905-885-1071