Who can resist jumping on bubble wrap? The kids attending the opening of Alligator Pie certainly couldn’t. After the curtain call, a number of pint-sized patrons of the arts crawled up on the Soulpepper stage and began gleefully hopping and stomping all over a sheet left behind by cast members.
Imagine my surprise when I discovered this noisy, anarchic behaviour was not only tolerated, but encouraged by the ushers. What kind of message is this sending to children? They’ll grow up expecting to have fun at the theatre.
The family-friendly Alligator Pie – a theatrical concert of Toronto bard Dennis Lee’s beloved poems for the little ones – is a departure for the adult-oriented Soulpepper. But it also has precedent – the company has previously made songs from grown-up poems penned by Lee and e.e. cummings.
Mike Ross, a likeable actor who also enjoys making music with unlikely instruments, is the fellow behind all of these musical-poem projects.
He crafted Alligator Pie with the help of four fellow Soulpepper performers: Ins Choi, Raquel Duffy, Gregory Prest and Ken MacKenzie. Choi is also a playwright, of Kim’s Convenience instant fame, while MacKenzie is also designer, so they’ve got all the elements needed for a fine collective creation – except for one, but back to that later.
Alligator Pie’s conceit is simple: The five performers emerge from a trap door to unleash their inner children in an attic full of junk boxes and old clothes. While I have a stubborn ideological opposition to setting pre-existing poems to music, Lee’s children’s poetry – much of it with an inherent sing-songy quality – matches up well with Ross’s compositions.
Tricking, Lee’s verse about a stand-off between a boy and his father at the dinner table, is a highlight, turned here into a tongue-in-cheek hip-hop tune performed by Choi as he rolls around the stage in an armchair, pimped out in giant glasses and an oversized dressing gown. It’s pure genius to link together the posturing of a three-year-old with that of a too-clever-by-half rapper.
The same goes for I Put a Penny in My Purse, which is transformed into a passion-filled tango howled by Prest. Prest brings a wild energy throughout the show, but particularly here, where losing a coin on the way to the store becomes an awful ordeal . Musical accompaniment is provided, ingeniously, by a three-hole punch, a roll of packing tape and couple of staplers that Ross wields like maracas.
Some of the more simple staging works well, too, such as Prest’s half-appalled, half-intrigued discovery that he is “sitting in the middle of a very muddy puddle.”
Lee, whose non-poetic accomplishments include co-founding the House of Anansi Press and writing the lyrics for the Fraggle Rock theme song on TV, penned most of these poems as part of a 1970’s nationalist project to liberate Canadian children from a colonial mentality. Not only did Canadians need to tell their stories, their kids needed their own nonsense verses that referenced Montreal or Kamloops or William Lyon Mackenzie King (who “loved his mother like anything”).
In The Cat and the Wizard, one of the longer numbers dramatized here, the title characters become friends and throw wild parties in Toronto’s Casa Loma rather than in a castle somewhere in Europe. Ross is wonderful as the downcast magus, with a beard made of the ubiquitous bubble wrap; Duffy puts on enjoyably snooty airs to play the cat.
But The Cat and the Wizard number also demonstrates what’s missing here, ending as it does in a confusing blackout. What this collective creation needs is a director, an outside eye to shape the show so it can be less herky-jerky.
My biggest pet peeve is how often the creators stand or walk in a circle, facing each other, with their backs to the audience. Though the show is staged in the round, the audience is excluded for a good chunk of it.
There are also issues with comprehensibility – particularly in Ken MacKenzie’s performance, which has an almost condescendingly childish quality to it – and an inconsistent approach to who and where these characters are.
Things to consider since the return of Alligator Pie next season to Soulpepper has already been announced. With a little more work, it could be a genuine hit – not too big, not too small, just the size of Montreal.