BWW Review: LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS: This Plant's No Shrinking Violet
Little Shop of Horrors
Book and Lyrics by Howard Ashman, Music by Alan Menken, Based on the film by Roger Corman, Screenplay by Charles Griffith; Directed and Choreographed by Rachel Bertone; Music Director, Dan Rodriguez; Scenic Design, Janie E. Howland; Costume Design, Marian Bertone; Lighting Design, Franklin Meissner, Jr.; Sound Design, Andrew Duncan Will; Puppet Design, Cameron McEachern; Props Artisan, Lauren Corcuera; Assistant Director, Blake Du Bois; Fight Consultant, J.T. Turner; Production Stage Manager, Robin Grady; Assistant Stage Manager, Nerys Powell
Rachel Bertone has set the bar high for the 45th anniversary season of the Lyric Stage Company with her pitch perfect production of Little Shop of Horrors. Assuming the mantle of both director and choreographer, with the dependable Dan Rodriguez as music director by her side, Bertone and her design team capture the grit and the innocence of the story set in the early 1960s, while finding ways to punctuate it with flashes of contemporary pizzazz. Puppet designer Cameron McEachern has crafted an Audrey II without gender bias on its menu, and despite being voiced by a woman (Yewande Odetoyinbo), the plant is no shrinking violet.
First and foremost, Little Shop of Horrors is a really fun, entertaining show, with a smart score by Alan Menken (music) and Howard Ashman (lyrics, as well as the book). As a team, the two collaborated on a trio of Disney creations (The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Beauty and The Beast), until Ashman's untimely death from complications of AIDS in 1991. Menken has maintained a high profile, hugely successful career, working with a long list of songwriters, amassing credits, and piling up awards. The memorable music in Little Shop borrows from doo wop, Motown, and rock 'n' roll styles, yet still sounds like it belongs in the musical theater genre.
Of course, it doesn't hurt that the voices in this cast, individually and collectively, are top-notch. As the Greek chorus of Skid Row street urchins, Pier Lamia Porter (Chiffon), Lovely Hoffman (Crystal), and Carla Martinez (Ronnette) provide a running "song-entary" throughout the show in the finest tradition of girl groups (note their character names), with soaring, tight three-part harmonies, fluid dance moves, and just the right amount of sassy attitude. They shine when they have the spotlight to themselves (Prologue "Little Shop of Horrors"), and seamlessly tone it down to sing back-up for the principal characters.
Dan Prior inhabits Seymour Krelborn, the schlemiel in the eye of the storm that swirls around the bloodthirsty vegetable that he has nurtured in the back room of Mushnik's Florist Shop. His body language and facial expressions convey Seymour's lack of confidence and acceptance of his low place on the totem pole of life, until he gets a boost from the notoriety that Audrey II brings to the shop. Added to that, the original Audrey (Katrina Z Pavao), the co-worker with a heart of gold for whom Seymour named the plant, is kind to him and seems to like him, even though she has a boyfriend. When Seymour sees the way that the sadistic dentist Orin (Jeff Marcus) treats Audrey, he hatches a plan (with the help of Audrey II) to rescue her and his own fortunes at the same time.
Prior and Pavao are delightfully well-matched and make the audience root for them to be together. Her voice has an angelic quality that suits her character, and her portrayal balances on the edge between sweet and ditzy. This is a woman who knows how little the world offers her and accepts the crumbs with as much grace as possible. At the same time, she encourages Seymour to want more and to believe in himself, and Prior stands taller and becomes a more forceful personality under her loving gaze. Their second act duet ("Suddenly, Seymour") is arguably one of the loveliest, and certainly one of the best-known musical numbers, and Prior and Pavao, with backing from the trio, make it stand out.
Remo Airaldi (Mr. Mushnik) proves once again that he is a master character actor, anchoring the ensemble as the proprietor of the grungy, failing florist shop. With his hair flattened and scraggly, a five o'clock shadow, and dull, colorless clothing, his Mushnik appears to be drawn in grayscale and finding very little reason to exist. His outlet is venting his frustrations at Seymour, until he realizes that the boy and his plant are his meal ticket. As insurance against losing them, he decides to "adopt" Seymour and the two shake hands and dance a hysterical tango ("Mushnik and Son") to seal the deal.
The leather-clad, motorcycle-riding, nitrous oxide-inhaling dentist is only one of several characters that Marcus brings to life. Orin lets us in on his backstory ("Dentist!"), gleefully recounting how his mother chose his career for him when he was a young sadist. Marcus perfects his swagger and his sneer, stopping just short of going too far over the top, but successfully convincing the audience not to bat an eye when Orin gets what's coming to him. From a Skid Row derelict, to a couple of customers, and a series of promoters trying to make a buck off of Seymour and his unusual plant, Marcus changes personalities on a dime and distinguishes them all. Having seen him many times on local stages, this performance ranks among his best.
Last, but not least, let's talk about the elephant, er, the vegetable that dominates the stage. Audrey II starts out in a pot that can be easily carried around, but grows substantially once Seymour figures out the plant food that she craves. McEachern's construction is embodied and brought to life by Tim Hoover (puppeteer) with energy and humor, while Odetoyinbo's full-throated vocals resonate with fearsome brio, even from offstage. The synergy between the two actors is tremendous, resulting in the plant having an oversized impact as both a physical presence and a psychological force. People in the front rows might have cause to feel a little nervous.
Scenic designer Janie E. Howland conveys the grimy, grungy atmosphere of the Skid Row neighborhood and the tired interior of Mushnik's, and Franklin Meissner, Jr.'s lighting intentionally does nothing to brighten it up, until the money starts flowing in and the florist shop undergoes renovations. Costume designer Marian Bertone dulls down the attire for Mushnik and Seymour, but goes to town with some flashy gowns for the chorus and fitting, if garish, outfits for Audrey. Marcus gets some help from Mama Bertone with his diverse characterizations. Effective sound design is provided by Andrew Duncan Will. Props artisan Lauren Corcuera deserves a nod for her contribution to the authenticity of the place and time, with kudos for procuring a vintage dental chair.
Little Shop of Horrors has a storied life, originating as a low-budget film by Roger Corman in 1960. Ashman and Menken's adaptation opened in 1982 at The WPA Theatre, Off-Off Broadway, before moving Off-Broadway for a five-year run at the Orpheum Theatre. A West End production ran for two years, a film version of the musical was made in 1986, and the show finally had its Broadway debut in 2003. Numerous stagings and tours have followed, illustrating the staying power of the little plant that could. Undaunted by that long history, Bertone and company have found a way to put their singular imprint on the musical. If they can figure out a way to convert applause and enthusiastic audiences into plant food, Audrey II and this Little Shop might keep on going.