Little Shop of Horrors
Review by Sean McQuaid
Little Shop of Horrors isn’t pretty, but it grows on you. Ye olde reviewer isn’t sure at this late date which he saw first — Roger Corman’s original 1960 sci-fi black comedy about a man-eating plant, or the 1982 Alan Menken/Howard Ashman stage musical version that blossomed into a film of its own in 1986 — but both shows initially left me a little cold.
Corman’s 1960 low-budget seedling managed to be darkly downbeat and hokey at the same time (despite a young Jack Nicholson's memorable bit-player debut), while the 1986 movie musical offshoot was more clever, inventive, funny and visually spectacular but tacked on a discordantly happy ending.
The 1982 stage version is comparatively authentic and daring, but dark — it’s a bloodily murderous, pitch-black comedy without much in the way of characters you can root for, most of them weak or corrupt and ultimately doomed. It’s perhaps the most nihilistic musical I’ve ever seen, albeit cheerfully so.
All of that makes it pretty ideal for the Halloween season, during which ACT mounted the show at Holland College’s handsome new Florence Simmons Performance Hall. I like the space; the hall is small enough and its sloped-seating sight lines clear enough that there’s hardly a bad seat in the house.
My wife, a lifelong Little Shopaholic, says it’s one of the better live productions of the show she’s seen over the years. She cites a strong cast (though she felt Robyn MacDougald’s Audrey too closely echoed her 1986 film counterpart) as well as some neat directorial touches like varied musical pacing amplifying the creepiness of certain scenes.
As for me, I had fun despite my squeamishness. There were occasional technical difficulties, particularly with sound — ranging from a near-silent prologue to random actors' mics going quiet during certain songs, plus at least one supporting actor’s mic cutting in and out intermittently in one scene — but the show’s fundamentals are strong.
The music’s great, both the clever Menken/Ashman songs and the performance of same, featuring a solid pit band and thirty actors. Director Peter Krauskopf's crowded stage is often busy but never cluttered, and Morgan Wagner's simple but effective choreography helps everyone navigate the space smoothly.
Among the smoother navigators are the Ronettes — streetwise teens Chiffon (Jenna Marie), Crystal (Lindsay Schieck) and Ronnette (Alexandra Sorensen) — who offer oft-musical commentary on the proceedings like a doo-wop Greek chorus. Fine vocalists all, they do a lot to sustain the show's tricky tone of light-hearted darkness, and Schieck in particular adds a winning mix of charm and cynicism to numbers like "Skid Row."
Steve Bruce and Robyn MacDougald are both funny, believable and sympathetic as meek star-crossed lovers Seymour and Audrey, an amusing Richard Fellbaum evokes Mel Brooks as schemer Mr. Mushnik, and ACT mainstays Gerry Gray & Terry Pratt shine in bit parts as an anguished dental patient and wheeler-dealer Patrick Martin, respectively.
But the show's supreme scene-stealers are homicidal houseplant Audrey II, brought to life via elaborate puppets crafted by Ontario's Deb & Jenny Erb for Korda Artistic Productions and animated by an able team of puppeteers and vocalists; and an ideally cast, note-perfect Noah Nazim as gleefully sadistic dentist Orin Scrivello, the only performer chewing even more scenery than the giant flytrap. With monsters like these on stage, Little Shop of Horrors may not be pretty but it sure is entertaining.