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Theater Review: Little Shop of Horrors


Published April 13, 2005 at 4:00 a.m.

There's a reason Little Shop of Horrors has become a boy-meets-girl, plant-eats-world phenomenon. It never ceases to satisfy an appetite for mindless entertainment, and Northern Stage Company has assembled an energetic ensemble for its delightfully kitschy production.

The musical version of Little Shop -- with book and lyrics by Howard Ashman and music by Alan Menken -- was based on a low-budget, black-and-white movie from 1960 by Roger Corman. That grainy film featured a then little-known actor named Jack Nicholson as a nasty dental patient who liked pain enough to declare, "No Novocain. It dulls the senses!"

Following its off-Broadway musical adaptation by Menken and Ashman (also of Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast fame), it jumped back to the silver screen in a highly successful 1986 movie version starring Rick Moranis and Steve Martin. Numerous regional stagings followed. By now everyone is surely familiar with the plot of Little Shop of Horrors.

In case you're not: Geeky, out-of-luck Seymour Krelbourn has discovered an exotic plant with a strange and insatiable appetite. The plant is growing remarkably fast, as is Seymour's love for his florist shop co-worker Audrey. But Audrey has a sadistic dentist boyfriend, and the plant has a bloodthirsty secret that threatens the entire planet. As the feeding frenzy begins, Seymour becomes a celebrity, and the plant, a worldwide sensation. In the end, Seymour must decide whether to put a stop to his misguided behavior or risk losing his newly found fame and wealth, not to mention his new love.

Little Shop of Horrors effectively mixes sci-fi fantasy, broad comedy and an endearing love story. Most of all, though, the show is about human morality and the corruption of values in pursuit of material gain.

This rendition, directed by John Hayden, doesn't offer any new revelations to the familiar storyline, and it doesn't need to. Northern Stage's Little Shop is slick, entertaining and such a hit that its run has been extended an extra week.

Cory Grant is as wonderful a Seymour as you could wish: admirably but not overly geeky, and with a refreshing "edge" to his characterization. Robyn Elizabeth Lee is marvelous in the role of Seymour's love interest Audrey; she is lovable and clear-voiced, and never pushes her character into caricature. This is amply apparent in her beautiful interpretation of the show's famous ballad, "Somewhere That's Green." Grant and Lee are perfectly matched and have an infectious chemistry in their rendition of "Suddenly Seymour."

Damian Buzzerio brings a nice energy to flower-shop owner Mr. Mushnik. His "Mushnik and Son" tango with Grant is priceless. As the trio of street-urchin soul-sisters, Ebony Afina Mills, Tymia R. Green and Meredith Suttles bring the house down with their 'tude and tight musical harmonies. Suttles' powerful opening verse to "Downtown" is one of the evening's standout moments.

Hayden's simple and swift-moving staging breaks away from the typical Little Shop mold by adding some fun surprises, particularly in the show's final moments. In a few instances his staging is awkward, especially for actors inside the flower shop as Audrey II grows larger, but, in general, he uses the space well. However, he misses some opportunities to aid his ensemble in creating more suspenseful moments. Mushnik's death seems rushed, and Audrey's unbelievable. In addition, Jenny Lee Stern's choreography could be a bit crisper and more imaginative, although it is always amusingly, intentionally cheesy.

The set design by Ken Goldstein cleverly reveals Mushnik's Florist behind a cityscape, while also incorporating the production's pit-band inside a building onstage. The band itself is tight, with wonderful musical direction by Tom McDonough. Annmarie Duggan has effectively lit the space, and Marynbeth Sousa-Wynn has fun with the costumes, especially those for the sequin-covered soul sisters.

The production makes only a couple of minor missteps. One is the casting of John Halbach as Orin Scrivello, the evil dentist. He seems to be trying to channel Steve Martin from the movie version, and delivers a confused interpretation. He finds some of Orin's humor, but is not believably vicious enough to hurt Audrey in a way that would require "Epson salts and ace bandages." Halbach fares better with his numerous smaller character roles.

The other problem is with the coordination of the quintessential "star" of Little Shop -- the spectacular, man-eating plant Audrey II. Though Audrey II is ably voiced by Aaron Fuska and puppeteered by Gordon Gray, the duo doesn't synchronize well enough for the audience to accept that they are "one."

Last Saturday's audience included lots of young theatergoers. It was amazing to see children so energized and intelligently discussing what they had seen as they left the theater. Kudos to Northern Stage, not only for getting families to attend, but also for presenting youth with such a charming, professional product.

In the tradition of punishing all who let greed consume their nobler instincts, Little Shop of Horrors is a gory fairy tale without any possibility of a happy ending. Those who follow world events may find themselves looking beneath and beyond the play's campy doings.