BWW Reviews: MICA's LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS Exults in Freakish Fun
The creepily campy, gruesomely goofy premise of the 1960s classic Little Shop of Horrors begs audiences to leave their disbelief at the door and come along on a wacky ride requiring runaway imagination. The Maryland Institute College of Art's student-run Rivals of the West Theatre Co. is an ideal team to tackle this big story with a small-ish cast, as the fine arts students have endowed the production with their outstanding creativity, evident in the stunning set design and masterful puppetry.
Accompanied by a live, five-piece band that carries the musical forward on its rock n' roll rhythms of doo-wop and Motown, the young actors unleash their singing and acting prowess with passion and panache. And some of them have voices that are simply stunning, making you wonder how some people get all the creative talent.
After a cute, hip-shaking opening number by the equally cute Skid Row street-urchin trio of Ronette, Chiffon and Crystal (Larissa Cortes, Sage Viscovi and Lauren Siminski, respectively)--a threesome that appears, always together, in a supporting role throughout the performance (and, spoiler alert, the only human main characters to survive till the end)--the entire cast revs up the audience and the pace of the play with a great, rousing rendition of "Skid Row (Downtown)."
Then we meet evenly matched main characters Audrey (a charming Chelsea Beck), whose demure, wide-eyed naiveté is a perfect complement to her blonde bob, and her wet-blanket coworker Seymour (Seán O'Brien), who clearly idolizes Audrey. They both seem relegated to a sad life of menial labor in Mr. Mushnik's wilting Skid Row flower shop until Seymour introduces an unidentified exotic plant that appeared after a total eclipse of the sun. In an homage to his beautiful, blonde coworker, Seymour names the plant the Audrey II, and the coworkers convince Mr. Mushnik that putting the plant in the window will bring notoriety and save the failing flower shop.
And then the freakish fun begins! We watch Audrey II grow, only once Seymour realizes that she requires regular doses of blood to thrive, in the form of increasingly complex and beautifully produced puppets, the work of puppet master Austen Weitzel and his three-person team. As Audrey II flourishes, so too do flower shop business and Seymour's fame. And so does the plant's appetite ...
We watch as Seymour struggles to appease the increasingly demanding Audrey II and to rescue Audrey (I) from an abusive relationship with a sadistic dentist (a hilariously sadistic and exceptionally creepy Peter Favinger), all set to the poppy, upbeat sounds of the '60s. Just the juxtaposition of macabre action and the accompanying music is giggle-worthy.
Of all the fantastically executed scenes in the production, the one in which Seymour faces off with his dentist nemesis in the dentist's beautifully reproduced studio is of particular note. O'Brien's facial expressions are spot on as he faces the "ethical dilemma" of rescuing (or not) the dentist from his own gas mask. Favinger dies a brilliantly choreographed death, but not without getting the audience chuckling with his own nitrous oxide-induced laughter. Kudos go to both actors and to director/producer Christopher Shipley.
The only downsides to the production are the volume of the band, which often drowns out the lyrics the actors are singing, despite the fact that they're all individually miked, and some of the audience viewing angles (the BBOX theater, where the production takes place, offers seating in a semicircle around the stage), which offer a little bit too much insight into the magic of the puppetry.
Otherwise, this production is deliciously disturbing in all the right ways, right down to the tiny, singing clippings of Audrey II that steal the show during the finale. What a creepy thing to be happening!
Little Shop of Horrors runs Thursday-Sunday through April 13 at the BBOX, Maryland Institute College of Art, 1601 W. Mt. Royal Ave. in Baltimore. For more information, visit www.rivalsofthewest.org.