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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

Little Shop of Horrors: Ashman-Menken 1982 Smash Faithfully Recreated on Paper Mill Stage

Also see Bob's review of Movin' Out

Little Shop of Horrors
Jenny Fellner and Jared Gertner
Little Shop of Horrors has been a smash hit since it burst unexpectedly onto the stage of Manhattan's tiny WPA Theatre in 1982. Following its limited run there, Little Shop transferred to the larger Orpheum Theatre on lower 2nd Avenue where it ran for over five years before closing in 1987 after 2,209 performances. Fast-paced and ghoulishly funny, and filled with delightful pastiche music (mostly reflecting the doo-wop and girl group rock and roll of the early 1960s), Little Shop is practically surefire entertainment.

However, Little Shop is more than that. It is a seminal American musical. A true original which brought low brow culture (here a 1960 science fiction/horror film comedy of the same name directed by Roger Corman that was shot in two days at a cost of $27,000) and post American Songbook musical styles to our musical theatre in the service of self-referential satiric comedy. Ashman, then WPA artistic director, believed that if he didn't have his own theatre, there would have been no producer who would have been willing to put on Little Shop. Its inferior spawn may often wreak the same havoc on musical theatre that Audrey II's off-shoots intend to inflict on human kind However, it is also the progenitor of such superior musicals as Batboy and Hairspray. And, whatever one may think of its successors, Little Shop retains the exhilarating wit and fresh intelligence which made it so refreshing in the heady days when the youthful Howard Ashman (book, lyrics, and direction) and Alan Menken (music) first created it.

On stage, the scene is set by a trio of street urchins, played by three black female singers, each named after a popular girl group of the early sixties (Chiffon, Crystal and Ronnette). Schlemiel Seymour Krelborn, rescued from an orphanage by Mr. Mushnik, works in Mushnik's failing Skid Row flower shop. Seymour's flower shop co-worker is the tackily sexy and sweetly simple Audrey, who is a willing punching bag for her sadistic dentist boyfriend. Seymour adores Audrey, and both long for a better life in the suburbs ("Somewhere That's Green"). Seymour obtains a strange and interesting plant resembling a Venus Fly Trap that has fallen from outer space. Seymour names the plant Audrey II. Accidentally discovering that the plant thrives on human blood, Seymour provides it by cutting his fingers. When put on display, the plant attracts business to the shop and brings fame and success to Seymour. It isn't long before Audrey II grows to gargantuan proportions. The plant then unleashes a soul singer's voice, and demands flesh and more blood. Seymour at first recoils from this suggestion, but there is that sadistic dentist.

Director Mark Waldrop has chosen to recreate the original 1982 production in so far as reasonably possible. Jenny Fellner nicely captures the substandard eastern accent and lispy vocalization that made Ellen Greene oddly poignant as Audrey. Jared Gertner's Seymour is engaging, but a full realization of Seymour requires a more quirky, idiosyncratic display of neurotic need. There can be no reservation about the goosebumps raised by "Suddenly Seymour," Gertner's thrilling duet with Fellner. Listen to the subtle beauty of Menken's melody and the craft and the off-beat tenderness of Ashman's lyrics for these lovers from the uneducated, permanent underclass.

Stephen Berger captures the humorous Yiddishisms of the grumpy and manipulative Mushnik, an amusingly stereotypical role which, with the passing of an older generation, has become less common in our theatre. Asa Somers as Orin, the leathered jacketed, sadistic dentist, performs with a most entertaining, maniacal relish. Somers also performs several additional short roles with aplomb. Montego Glover (Chiffon), Badia Farha (Crystal) and Angela Grovey (Ronnette) create distinctive individuals and sing well. However, choreographer Vince Pesce should have provided more variety in their dance routines.

Of course, the big scene stealer is Audrey II. Michael James Leslie is powerful, witty and a fully secure belter as the plant's voice. Leslie's comic timing is right on. The original puppet design of Martin P. Robinson has been augmented by design and construction by Monkey Boy Productions. Audrey II does not extend beyond the stage (well, there is an entertaining added effect at the final curtain which need not be given away here). Still, it is impressively supple, and, serially, large, extremely large, enormous and enormously entertaining.

A successful recreation of a 26-year-old small theatre musical in a full sized proscenium theatre requires many new creative ideas and choices which must illuminate the vision of the original. The near perfect craftsmanship of Little Shop of Horrors is revealed by director Mark Waldrop. It is clear that he completely understands the intentions of writer-original director Howard Ashman as his Paper Mill production captures the nuances and depth that are the ballast of Little Shop. There is a sense of gravitas and true horror when, at the conclusion of the first act, Seymour feeds Orin's bloody body parts, one by one, into the maw of Audrey II. With the darkened but vivid lighting and keyboard organ sounds contributing to the feeling that evil was abroad on Skid Row, I was struck by how closely this Little Shop scene mirrored the texture of Sondheim's Sweeney Todd (Note: Sweeney Todd opened in New York in 1978).

More generally, there is a social consciousness and craftsmanship here that is all too rare in today's musical theatre. The second song, "Skid Row (Downtown)," describes the drudgery of menial work followed by the depression of returning to a poor, unlivable neighborhood. And, as Seymour loses his bearings and there is clearly no escape for anyone, an underlying sense of sadness and hopeless for the have nots can be felt. The happiest, most brightly lit moment in this production is when we see Mushnik's Flower Shop flourishing, creating jobs and money for everyone in sight.

Little Shop of Horrors may be too intense for impressionable younger children. It is to the credit of Paper Mill and Waldrop that they have not softened its outrι moments in order to broaden Little Shop's family appeal. The result is that New Jersey audiences (most especially including older children) are being presented with a Little Shop of Horrors, which continues the restoration of Paper Mill's luster as a major regional musical theatre.

Little Shop of Horrors continues performances through July 6 - Evenings: Wed., Thurs. & Sun. 7:30 pm; Fri. & Sat 8 pm / Matinees: Thurs, Sat. & Sun. 2 pm (no perf. 7/4; additional perf 7/1 at 7:30PM)- at the Paper Mill Playhouse, Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ 07041. Box Office: 973-376-4343; online: www.papermill.org.

Little Shop of Horrors book and lyrics by Howard Ashman; Music by Alan Menken; directed by Mark Waldrop

Cast
Chiffon…………………………....Montego Glover
Crystal…………………………………Badia Farha
Ronnette……………………………Angela Grovey
Mushnik……………………………Stephen Berger
Audrey……………………………….Jenny Fellner
Seymour……………………………..Jared Gertner
Orin, others……………………………Asa Somers
Skid Row Folk………Darin DePaul/ Stacey Harris
……………………………………...Tally Sessions
Voice of Audrey II………….Michael James Leslie
Audrey II Manipulation…………….Michael Latini
Manipulation (6/29-7/6)……………Paul McGinnis


Photo: Gerry Goodstein


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- Bob Rendell



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