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St. Louis by Richard Green

Little Shop of Horrors
Stray Dog Theatre

Also see Richard's review of Timon of Athens


Lindsey Jones, Christopher R. Brenner (standing)
and Ben Watts

It may be the end of the world, but there's a delightful sense of reassurance from the minute the show starts, in this Ashman and Menken pop classic, based on a Roger Corman B-movie from 1960. The three singing girls who open the musical version may just be white (and one of them may not even be a girl at all) but they sure are rockin' the poodle skirts.

They operate perfectly as a sort of collective consciousness—after a little joke about going-too-gospel in scene one, where Crystal (Maria Bartolotta) is severely rebuked by the dramatic eye-liner of the other two, for her over-the-top ululations. But after that, they are all miraculously, almost maniacally, one solid back-up group.

I could tell you about everything except the wonderful leads, and you'd still know this newest staging of a great science fiction musical is simply fantastic. Keith Thompson's name is suspiciously riddled all through the cast list in the program, first as the basso street bum, destined to spend his life just pushing the revolving flower shop around and around on the stage—but he returns most memorably as the mad dentist with a jaw-dropping death scene in his highly detailed dentist's office (thanks to set-designer David Blake). Some day Keith Thompson is going to get a big juicy lead role and, boy-howdy (as we say in the Midwest), just watch out.

Of course the 1986 movie musical (directed by Frank Oz) defused a lot of the potential for emotional darkness, but I did see another very slick live production here in town about five years ago where they decided to go straight for the jugular. And every time the girl playing Audrey in that one came on stage I thought, "oh my God, she's going to gas herself by the furnace in the very next scene!" I guess that version of Little Shop was a great show too, but I'm not sure it's meant to be on the same level of intensity as Death of a Salesman.

Here, director Justin Been not only gives everybody a memorable moment to shine (or two or three or even ten), but he and Lindsey Jones (as Audrey) navigate perfectly down the middle between mass-market romp and something more appropriate for, say, Ingmar Bergman. I really hated it—in fact, someone in the audience behind me literally voiced audible disapproval—when Miss Jones made her final exit near the end: she was so lovable. And now she's just gone forever. Gone "somewhere that's green," as she sings so beautifully. Unless I go back next weekend, when she'll probably be just fine.

And then there's (suddenly) Seymour. Ben Watts (who was so adorable as teenaged girl Chicklet in Psycho Beach Party last year) is a wonderful Howdy Doody marionette in act one, yanked around by invisible strings as he endures the hopeless life of a flower shop flunky, but he's gradually thrust into fame and (relative) fortune by a strange little plant bought from a Chinese merchant (Mr. Thompson, again ... after an astronomical event that's left scientists baffled.

Mr. Watts gets a great, sharply executed little tango with Chris Brenner as the desperate, grasping Mr. Mushnik. And Mark Saunders blends right in, with no additional winking campiness at all, as one of the excellent doo-wop chorus girls (although he does resurrect his hilarious wig from Psycho Beach Party) along with choreographer Jamie Lynn Marble and the aforementioned Maria Bartolotta. That trio gets a huge array of matching outfits, one (seemingly) for every appearance, whether they're down in front of the apron or way, way up in the flies, where you get a powerful sense of the Fates at work. It's really not a wide stage, but it sure is tall! No wonder they have such nice legs, after all that climbing. And the special face-paint they wear in the final number is unexpectedly creepy, to complete the end-of-the-world motif.

The only thing that could use a little more work is the microphone situation. It's generally great, and of course all of the mics are kept down till they're needed, but there are just too many cues to handle to get them all brought up again in time, every time, all the way through. So a fair amount of dialog and singing is "upcut." It's probably too much for any one sound person. But if you're sitting close enough, in this small church-turned-theater, you really won't mind.

And the plant! I forgot the plant! Very nice work by Jeremy Sims, completing the Motown mystique, as the voice of the strange, scary (and eventually gigantic) horticultural specimen, which is operated by Dan Jones.

Due to the language, you probably don't want to bring young kids to this one. Unless you want your little angels to have a potty-mouth, is all I'm saying.

Through August 3, 2013, at the Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Ave. For more information call (314) 865-1995 or visit them online at www.straydogtheatre.org.

Cast, In Order Of Appearance
Chiffon: Jamie Lynn Marble
Crystal: Maria Bartolotta
Ronnette: Mark Saunders
Mr. Mushnik: Christopher R. Brenner
Audrey: Lindsey Jones
Seymour Krelborn: Benn Watts
Wino: Keith Thompson
Citizens: Evan R. Fornachon, Corey Fraine, Amelia Morse Kolkmeyer, Kimberly Still
Customer 1: Evan R. Fornachon
Old Chinese Man: Keith Thompson
Radio Interviewer: Corey Fraine
Orin Scrivello, DDS: Keith Thompson
Audrey Two (Voice): Jeremy Sims
Customer 2: Amelia Morse Kolkmeyer
Bernstein: Corey Fraine
Mrs. Luce: Kimberly Still
Skip Snip: Evan R. Fornachon
Patrick Martin: Keith Thompson

Little Shop Band
Director/Keyboard: Chris Petersen
Drums/Percussion (July 18-20): Clarence "Clancy" Newell
Drums/Percussion (July 25-August 3): Bob McMahon
Electric Bass: Michael Monsey
Guitar (Acoustic & Electric): Adam Rugo
Synthesizer: Sallie Du Maine

Crew
Director: Justin Been
Music & Vocal Direction: Chris Petersen
Choreography: Jamie Lynn Marble
Costume Design: Alexandra Scibetta Quigley
Lighting Design: Tyler Duenow
Scenic Design: David Blake
Production Manager: Jay V. Hall
Stage Manager: Justin Been
Assistant Stage Manager: Max Treutelaar
Makeup and Wig Stylist: Priscilla Case
Style Consultant: Jeffrey Salger
Audrey Two Makeup Design: Michelle Sauer
Artistic Director: Gary F. Bell


Photo by John Lamb


-- Richard T. Green

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