BWW Review: LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS at Pittsburgh Public Theatre Doesn't Reinvent, But Doesn't Have To
Little Shop of Horrors is an important musical. The Off-Broadway smash run in the 1980s, and the beloved film adaptation (complete with two different, equally divisive, takes on the ending), gave us the pairing of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, and established the Menken-Ashman template for writing musicals. This is the biggest formula development since Rodgers and Hammerstein essentially set the bar in the early 1940s, and it has yet to go out of style- every Disney musical, plus shows as diverse as The Book of Mormon and everything by Team StarKid. Menken and Ashman are to musical theatre what Joseph Campbell's "Hero's Journey" is to writers of genre fiction: the essential backbone of structure everything builds upon.
And all this innovation and impact came from a decidedly silly show with a talking plant. Freshly directed for Pittsburgh by Marya Sea Kaminski, with musical direction by John McDaniel and featuring plant puppets that debuted in the Broadway production two decades ago, this Little Shop is familiar without being reverent. There are touches that audiences would riot if they didn't see, but Kaminski and cast nonetheless find little ways to surprise us throughout.
In the lead role of nerdy botanist Seymour, Philippe Arroyo steers much closer to "endearingly cute and nerdy" than the original production's "aging, balding, plump and not quite all there," but ever since Rick Moranis found the charm in Seymour's awkwardness, Seymours worldwide have veered towards a cuddlier and less campy interpretation of the role. And who can blame them? Seymour Krelborn is one of the great romantic leads in musical theatre, a guy who could really be something if he got out of his own way. Speaking of being in his own way, Arroyo thankfully never goes full Jerry Lewis, instead finding a jittery, repressed physicality in Seymour that bursts free in moments of high emotion (just wait for him to get riled up and start channeling all four members of the Million Dollar Quartet during "Feed Me"). Plus, he has some of the best physical comedy I've ever seen from a Seymour, and Kaminski and choreographer Trina Mills have given him a true tour-de-force in Act 1's "Seymour carries around the bonsai-sized plant and battles with it as it tries to eat him and the other characters" sequence. This two minute musical number alone is worth the price of admission.
And then there's Audrey, lovely Audrey. Lauren Marcus, late of Broadway's Be More Chill, has the biggest and most iconic shoes to fill. Ellen Greene's genuinely bizarre but instantly legendary characterization of Audrey as part Edith Bunker, part Marilyn Monroe and part drag queen has been imitated, parodied and homaged for almost forty years now. Every actress portraying Audrey, and every director guiding her, must decide how much of THAT Audrey they need to give the audience. Marcus, thankfully, has erred on the side of differentiation. Gone are the helium voice, the squinchy little geisha-style walk, the Hedwig and the Angry Inch coiffure. Instead, Marcus gives us a more down-to-earth version of this eccentric character, swapping Greene's nasal lisp for a persistent bit of vocal fry and a less sing-song delivery. It works, and it's nice to hear songs like "Suddenly Seymour" fresh, free of the oft-imitated affectations that seem permanently tied to the material. (How good of a song is "Suddenly Seymour?" Good enough that I could hear people all over the auditorium not singing along, but breathing it in rhythm like they were trying not to burst into song on the final chorus.) Marcus finds moments of subtlety in a larger-than-life character, but not so many that the character loses her definition.
Holding the two together is Marc Moritz, whose Mr. Mushnik carries the same mix of manic energy and hangdog desperation that earned Tony Shalhoub all those Marvelous Mrs. Maisel awards and nominations. His swings from despair to kid-in-a-candy-store giddiness as the shop's fortunes rise and fall never fail to get laughter from the audience. The show is buoyed along by powerhouse vocals and snide but good-natured wisecracks from the Urchin trio, comprised of Melessie Clark, Tavia Riveé and Abigail Stephenson. An unexpected highlight of the evening was their in-character delivery of the preshow speech, which boosted the feeling of playfulness and engagement that the show thrives upon.
The rest of the cast are a series of bit players, led by Patrick Cannon as Orin Scrivello, DDS and several other quick appearances. Cannon, a Pittsburgh Public Theatre regular, brings a menacing alpha-male presence to the sadistic dentist. In an unusual move, Kaminski has spread several of the Orin track's cameo roles out among the other two bit players, allowing Monteze Freeland (the voice of Audrey II) and J. Alex Noble (the puppeteer of Audrey II) to make in-person and prerecorded appearances outside the plant. Freeland and Noble are both mainstays of the Public, featured in A Few Good Men earlier this year, so their cameos played well to the audience of Pittsburgh regulars. While Freeland's voice and characterization of Audrey II took a while to grow on me, by Act 2 I was totally onboard with his transition from a goofy, Muppety sound at first to a bigger and more menacing portrayal as the plant grows in size and appetite.
Little Shop of Horrors is smart, but it's still pure comfort food, one of the most immediately endearing and beloved musicals of all time. Without it, the landscape of musical theatre would be very different today. If Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman saw Kaminski's production, I know for a fact they'd be honored, amused and impressed. After all, in the end, who can resist the allure of a singing, talking, man-eating plant? I certainly couldn't, and Pittsburgh is sure to fall under Audrey II's spell.