When Little Shop of Horrors debuted in 1982, it played in a small Off-Broadway house and has since enjoyed worldwide success, including a motion picture version. The show boasts a wonderful score and solid story. In 2003, a bigger version landed on Broadway and a subsequent national tour based on that production is now playing at the Aronoff Center. In order to work in theaters the size of the Aronoff (2700 seats), the show has been staged "big" and unfortunately loses some of its emotional impact as a result.
Little Shop of Horrors tells the tale of the residents of early 1960s "skid row" in New York City. Seymour and Audrey work for Mr. Mushnik in his run-down flower shop that has very few customers. However, when Seymour finds an exotic plant and puts it on display, the customers start flocking to the store. Seymour soon discovers that his plant, lovingly named Audrey II after his co-worker and girl of his dreams, will only grow and thrive on a diet of human blood. When the plant eventually talks and convinces Seymour to kill people to meet its needs, Seymour must decide whether to put a stop to his misguided behavior or risk losing his newly found fame and wealth, as well as his new love.
The book for 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 one's values in pursuit of material gain. Howard Ashman's fun and unique take on this story is based on the 1961 film by Roger Corman (screenplay by Charles Griffith).
The score with music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Ashman is top notch and extremely fun. Menken provides catchy and lively melodies incorporating musical styles from the period including doo-wop, soul, and Elvis-inspired rockabilly. Ashman's lyrics are witty, interesting, challenging and accessible. "Downtown (Skid Row)" appropriately establishes the tone and setting of the musical, and "Somewhere That's Green" shows Audrey's longing for a better life, combining a tender melody with hilarious lyrics. "Suddenly Seymour" is the Little Shop's most well-known number, and is a chill-inducing powerhouse duet for Seymour and Audrey. The plant also has some fun numbers including "Git It" and "Suppertime".
Jonathan Rayson portrays Seymour as a likeable nerd who is easily manipulated, yet truly distressed at his ethical dilemma. Rayson sings like an angel and displays impeccable timing in the role. As Audrey, Tari Kelly too sings very strongly. She has the right balance of ditz and endearing heart, yet isn't a copycat of the Ellen Greene, who so famously originated the part. Yasmeen Sulieman, Iris Burruss, and LaTonya Holmes are sassy and soulful as the street urchins who serve as a Greek chorus. Ray Demattis (Mushnik) and James Moye (Orin) provide sufficient comic relief in their respective roles, and puppeteers Michael Latini, Paul McGinnis, and Marc Petrosino show great skill in bringing Audrey II to life. As the voice of Audrey II, Michael James Leslie demonstrates a powerful and colorful singing instrument and has lots of fun.
The real faults with this production come from its size. In shaping the show to play in such large theaters, Director Jerry Zaks has made things too busy and big for their own good. The show is a small one dealing with human relationships and issues, but the showbiz glitz and attitude displayed here works against that focus. The choreography by Kathleen Marshall is brisk and active, but again a bit too much. Brent-Alan Huffman capably leads a small five-piece orchestra that makes a big sound.
The design elements fit the larger concept for the show. The sets by Scott Pask are suitably dark and foreboding. Donald Holder's lighting sets the apt mood and also includes a rain effect. William Ivey Long's costumes are great as usual. The sound design by Domonic Sack and Carl Casella is one of the better ones heard at the Aronoff in some time.
Little Shop of Horrors is a wonderful little show that has been produced too large in this national tour. Despite some strong performances and a wonderful score and story, the changes made to accommodate the size of the theaters booked detract from the overall theatrical experience. For those only familiar with the film version, this stage version does possess a different ending and a number of additional songs. The show continues at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati until April 17, 2005.