BWW Review: A Dark LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS on Top of an Even Darker Hill
While the rest of L.A.'s theatre critics were distracted by all the Fringe shows opening up and down Melrose and Santa Monica this past weekend, I decided to go where the real art was happening: 40 miles North on the top of some dark hill in the middle of Ventura County.
The remote venue, located on top of a creepy mountain, was an appropriate home for Panic! Production's staging of the cult-classic macabre musical Little Shop of Horrors. Panic! definitely didn't hold back on the grit, and I can confidentially say that this is the darkest rendition of Little Shop I have ever seen.
If you're not familiar with Little Shop of Horrors, the story follows Seymour, a meek and impoverished flower shop worker, after he discovers a strange fly-trap type plant, which he names "Audrey 2", after his girlfriend, Audrey. Seymour soon discovers that the plant talks and is nourished by human blood. Seymour initially tries feeding Audrey II his own blood, but as each day passes the plant grows bigger and bigger, and Seymour quickly realizes he needs to find another source of fresh human blood to feed the hungry plant. And with that, Seymour turns into a murderer...
That's all I'm going to say about the plot. Little Shop of Horrors is the ninth most produced musical in the United States, and one of my personal all-time favorites. If you haven't seen several productions of it by now, you're really missing out.
How Was It?
Short Answer: Panic! Productions staged the darkest rendition of Little Shop of Horrors I have ever seen. The eerie design and phenomenal performances combined to create an evening that was unnerving, but also contagiously fun, campy, and utterly enjoyable.
Longer Answer: The show's design packed a strong punch that was largely responsible for the spooky and unnerving feel that permeated throughout this production. Scenic Designer Rei Yamamoto's gritty and cluttered artfully dilapidated set featured chain link fences, which acted as natural gobos for Shara Abvabi's stunning lighting design, casting uncanny chain-link shadows throughout the stage. The synergy between set, lighting, sound, and costume design reminded me of mazes you might see at Knott's Scary Farm (a true compliment considering Knott's mazes are simply the best). The design was chilling and ominous, and really brought out the gruesome spirit of the show.
This production also borrowed from American Idiot and stacked working TVs on the stage, playing 90s commercials, cartoons, and TV shows before curtain to help set the scene. I thought the TVs were a very interesting choice. Not only did I enjoy taking a trip down memory lane watching a bunch of familiar commercials that I hadn't seen in twenty years, but something about them added to the creepy atmosphere that Panic! absolutely nailed.
And finally, the cast didn't disappoint. Elijah Malcomb led the production as Seymour Krelborn, the meek and geeky flower shop employee turned murderer. Malcomb's solid singing and acting made him a great choice for this demanding role. Interestingly enough, he's the first African-American actor I've seen in this part, and the fact that he's black really changed the dynamic in a lot of scenes. For example, when Seymour's boss, Mr. Mushnik, gets upset with him after the number "Suddenly Seymour" and yells "sorry boy", a whole new meaning behind that line echos throughout the theatre like nails on a chalkboard.
Catriona Fray portrayed Audrey, Seymour's innocently sweet and doe-eyed girlfriend, with remarkable ease. Her bright, beautiful, and always on-pitch voice added to the warmth of Audrey's pure character. Fray gave an impassioned performance that was a pleasure to watch.
Paul Panico (who is also a co-founder of Panic! Productions) embodied flower shop owner Mr. Mushnik with a naturalistic ease that grounded the whole production. Panico struck the perfect balance portraying the gruff money grubbing side of Mushnik, and the caring grandfather figure side. Mushnik perhaps is the most complicated and three-dimensional character in the story. While on the surface he's mean and exploitative towards Seymour, he's also someone who looks after Seymour and Audrey like they're his own children, and he proves to have a decent moral compass. Panico masterfully explored the nuisances in this complicated character.
Jökull Jónsson was the voice of the villainous plant, Audrey II. Jónsson spent the whole show off-stage talking and singing into a microphone as Lora Hakanson masterfully operated a giant plant puppet to his voice. Jónsson's rich bass-baritone voice fooled me, since I found myself assuming throughout the show that he was a heavy set middle-aged black man. Instead, at curtain call, a slightly built white boy in his 20s from Iceland came running out and bowed. Jónsson deserves mad props for his performance - I didn't detect even the slightest hint of an Icelandic accent on Audrey II.
Rile Reavis took on the part of Orin Scrivello, a sadistic Dentist, and Audrey's ex-abusive boyfriend. Reavis portrayed Orin sort of like a heavy metal version of Biff from Back to the Future. Orin is just a fun character, and Reavis did this outrageous part justice.
Also worth mentioning was the three-woman street urchin chorus, played by Terika Jefferson, Olivia van den Berg, and Fay James. For some strange reason, a lot of productions like to skimp when casting these three important parts, and considering these women appear in just about every other number, it's usually a big mistake that has the potential to sink the entire production. Luckily, Panic! Productions filled these roles with solid triple threat talent who matched the leads with their strong energy, vocal prowess, and dancing.
This was, overall, one of my favorite productions of Little Shop of Horros I have ever seen. If BroadwayWorld gave stars, I would give this production five stars, but we don't (except for BroadwayWorld UK for some reason).
Who Should See It?
It's easy to recommend this production to literally anybody just looking to see an enjoyable musical. If you're a fan of campy cult-musicals, and horror, you will especially love Little Shop of Horrors.
It's also appropriate for audiences of all ages, so bring the kids.
How To See It
Panic! Production's Little Shop of Horrors runs at the Hillcrest Center for the Arts in Thousand Oaks thru June 18th. Tickets are $25 and can be purchased here.
Hillcrest Center for the Arts is located at 403 W Hillcrest Drive, Thousand Oaks, CA 91360.
Photo credit: Panic! Productions