Long one of my favorite musicals, Howard Ashman and Alan Menken's "Little Shop of Horrors" may not be a show that's particularly deep, but it's one that's infused with a pure joy, a razor-sharp edge, and a playfully appealing tongue-in-cheek tone that pokes gentle fun at 1950's and 60's B-movie conventions (it's inspired by Roger Corman's schlocky 1960 cult film of the same name). Add in a collection of memorable tunes, and "Little Shop of Horrors" is a musical that I find irresistible -- and Geva's new production doesn't disappoint.
"Little Shop" follows the plight of Seymour (Will Blum), the nerdy assistant at Mushnik's Skid Row Florists, a rundown flower shop owned by the irascible Mr. Mushnik (Danny Rutigliano). Seymour secretly pines after his sweet, fragile, and slightly trashy co-worker, Audrey (Kristen Mengelkoch), but is far too meek and mild-mannered to do anything about it, until his discovery of a strange, exotic plant injects new life into the business and brings Seymour a taste of success. But when he realizes that the plant requires blood to survive, the plant's insatiable appetite forces Seymour to engage in bit of Faustian bargaining as he compromises his humanity for fame, fortune, and love. All the while, a trio of young "street urchins" (Trista Dollison, Talitha Farrow, and Gavyn Pickens) act as a Motown Greek chorus, commenting on the seedy (and potentially world-ending) events as they unfold.
Despite its arch tone, "Little Shop" has a clear affection for its genre movie origins -- it tiptoes just on the edge of camp -- though this production, directed by Sean Daniels, steps a bit too far over that line, lacking some of the sincerity that gives the film and the best stage productions their charm. But the sticking point in any production of "Little Shop" is its ability to create a convincing Audrey II, and here the production is unfortunately a mixed bag.
Daniels employs a nice bit of outside-the-box casting, giving the typically male vocal performance to a female actress (Bethany Thomas), and it's an inspired choice. While Thomas capably sings the part, Audrey II's physical performance is carried out by puppeteer Raymond Carr, and the puppetry doesn't quite live up to the best renditions of the character. Don't get me wrong, it's an impressive effect, but I couldn't help hoping for a little more inventiveness and imagination from the puppet's design. Audrey II's first appearance as a marionette is a nice touch, hinting at what may be in store, but as the plant increases in size once the carnivorous organism begins feasting on various cast members, the later incarnations don't live up to the promise of those first moments. The largest version appeared a little unwieldy to operate. Obviously it's impossible for a puppet to seamlessly keep up with the speedy lyrics, but there were times when the plant's mouth barely seemed to open at all. Maybe it will just take some more practice, and with a month still left in the show's run, it's entirely possible that it will be a different experience down the line.
Blum and Mengelkoch are quite good as young lovers in peril, though Mengelkoch's performance suffers somewhat as she too often attempts to recreate -- at times right down to inflection -- the definitive performance of Ellen Greene, who originated the role of Audrey in addition to playing the part on screen. This inclination to recreate the film is a problem that unfortunately plagues a few other aspects of the show in costuming, staging, and performance. John Gregorio is impressively deranged as Orin, Audrey's sadistic dentist boyfriend, and brings an amusing hamminess to the various other roles he inhabits (the program amusingly credits him as Orin and "Everybody Else").
The endlessly catchy 60's pastiche score by Menken mixes rock 'n' roll, early Motown, Elvis, and doo-wop, and the cast sings the heck out of it. Menken and Ashman went on to collaborate on the songs for Disney's "The Little Mermaid" and "Beauty and the Beast," so that should give you an idea of just how great these songs are.
The production also boasts pleasingly grimy-looking set design by Michael Raiford and some nicely staged choreography from Wendy Seyb -- particularly during "Call Back in the Morning," as she turns the number into an intricate ballet of twisting phone cords.
Geva is advertising the show as "family fun," which isn't a technically inappropriate label, just a little odd for a show containing multiple onstage murders, domestic violence, and shameless abuse of nitrous oxide. And if you're only familiar with the Frank Oz's film adaptation, prepare yourself for a bit of a shock as things don't end quite so happily in the stage version. But if you've never seen "Little Shop of Horrors" performed on stage before, Geva's production makes for deliciously macabre and entertaining theater.
JCC CenterStage opened its 40th season doing what Ralph Meranto does best: producing a new national work, with local actors, for local audiences.