Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
The musical is based on Roger Corman's 1960 movie of the same name, which even then was a send-up of the era's grade B science fiction flicks. The 1982 musical, with a score by Allen Menken and lyrics and book by Howard Ashman (before their smash success with Disney's Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast) began life Off-Off-Broadway and quickly moved to Off-Broadway for a five year run. The passing decades enabled Menken and Ashman to add a schmear of early sixties nostalgia atop the spoofy sci-fi framework. The musical became a hit movie in 1986, and lives on as a staple of regional, community and school theater. A revival finally made it to Broadway in 2003, but Little Shop of Horrors plays best with a more free-wheeling, less ponderous Off-Broadway aura.
The titular little shop starts out as an innocent floral shop on New York City's Skid Row owned by Mr. Mushnik, who has barely eked out a living while the neighborhood around him went to seed. Years ago, Mushnik brought Seymour Krelborn, an orphan in the Skid Row Home for Boys, to work in the shop, and Seymour knows no other life. The shop's one other employee is Audrey, a demure but ditzy woman who is the object of Seymour's unspoken affection. Sadly for him, she has a boyfriend, a sadistic dentist who causes her to show up at work with a black eye one day, and a broken arm the next.
Mr. Mushnik finally tells Seymour and Audrey that he can no longer afford to keep the store open, and must shut it down. But Seymour has an idea. He has secretly been raising a highly unusual plant and believes it would draw customers to the shop. Mushnik agrees to give it a week. Sure enough, passersby see the plant in the window, are drawn inside, and make purchases. What they don't knowand even Seymour does not know at firstis that the plant, which he named Audrey II in honor of his beloved, can only thrive on a diet of human blood. At first, a finger prick or two provides Audrey II with a meal, but as the plant grows bigger, it gets hungrier and more demanding of Seymour. When the plant begins to talk, growling "Feed me!" in an urban drawl, Seymour knows he is no longer the one in charge. He knows he is fostering a menace and should stop, but his success has drawn Audrey to see him as more than a co-worker, and he fears that without that success, he will lose her. Oh, the dark and disturbing choices we make in the name of happiness.
The entire tale, dark as it is, is told with a broad wink. Even the grim ending and a coda that wraps up the story display showbiz panache. Ashman's book is chock full of funny one-liners of the Jewish-rooted humor common to musical comedies. His lyrics are witty and fully in service of characters and story, while Allen Menken's score is tuneful and bouncy, with nods to both classic showtunes and R&B. The latter is the province of a trio of street urchins named Crystal, Chiffon and Ronette (a send up of early 1960s girl groups), who serve as a Greek choir, setting scenes, commenting on events and providing back-up to the principal characters.
Those principal characters are all broad types, and cast to perfection. Foremost, Ty Hudson is terrific as Seymour. His lanky appearance and aw-shucks demeanor are perfectly suited to the bashful, awkward floral clerk at the start, while his manic energy bring him to life as he is driven by the success and the nightmare of Audrey II. He sings beautifully, handles the dance moves with spikey grace, and has comic chops that do justice to Ashman's script. Let's hope we see more of Mr. Hudson on this and other stages.
Courtney Groves is splendid as Audrey, carrying her bouffant blonde hair with dignity while walking in minced baby steps on wobbly high heels. She plays ditzy with appealing sincerity, and brings out the humor not only in her lines but in the character. She too has a lovely voice, put to good use on the tenderly satiric "Somewhere That's Green," rising to a belt in "Suddenly Seymour." Michael Fischetti fits the role of Mr. Mushnik to a T. He is not a bad man, but tired of the daily grind. He has had to put survival ahead of other niceties. Fischetti handles a New York/Jewish accent with acumen. Phillip C. Matthews, who played the cad in Artistry's The Baker's Wife last fall, is back as villainous dentist Orin who abuses both Audrey and the nitrous oxide kept in his office. This time, though, the cad is played for laughs, and Matthews scores with all the moves of a cocky and clueless bad guy.
The street urchins are played by Alicia Britton, Falicia Cunningham, and Jill Iverson, who sing, move, and strike poses with great flair. Alan Holasek does fine work in several small roles. Last but not at all least is Audrey II. The physical plant starts as a hand puppet that grows scene by scene, until it occupies the entire flower shop, puppeteer Charles Goitia operating it from within. Its voice is provided by Brandon Jackson, in tones that are ominous and arrogantAudrey II knows it is unstoppable. Goitia's movement and Jackson's vocalizations blend perfectly to create a monster that is at once frightening and ridiculous.
Artistry has a track record for winning productions of musicals, from classics to recent work. The common elements are high end production values, robust performances, and music director Anita Ruth, whose work fully respects the original material, while making it come alive as if it were the freshest thing on the Rialto. For this production, those three elements receive additional gifts bestowed by Joe Chvala, who both directs and choreographs. Chvala's direction gives the piece just the right balance between camp and sincerity, and propels the entire show from start to finish. Little Shop of Horrors feels like a full scale musical, though it has a cast of only ten. Chvala uses those ten actors, both in character-driven dance, and in playing out scenes, to create the illusion of seeing a bigger show.
The principle set is Mushnik's flower shop, with one scene set in the dental office, and others played on the streets, alleys, stoops and fire escapes of skid row. A backdrop of storefronts creates a crazy, Coney Island-like broken down amusement park environment. The whole stage is framed by bright lights that blink on and off like a pinball game at the top of the second act. The flower shop maintains the same cartoon-like design, with misshapen windows and jarring colors. Jarring colors also describes many of the costumes, bright eye-fills of Crayola hued garb. Audrey wears a femme-fatale's little black dress while under the dentist's thumb, but her colors turn bright when her heart turns to Seymour. Audrey, Crystal, Chiffon and Ronette have great wigs, hair piled high as if to salute their era. Lighting and sound design are class A.
There was not a minute of this production in which I thought "well that could be better." Everything about it speaks to the quality of Artistry's work. This musical has been around the block quite a bit, but it feels fresh, funny, and inventive here. The message is modest, but gives the show a bite that lasts beyond the parking lot. Go see it!
Little Shop of Horrors continues through February 19, 2017, in the Schneider Theater at Artistry, Bloomington Center for the Arts, 1800 West Old Shakopee Road, Bloomington, MN. Tickets: $38.00 $41.00; age 62 and up: $33.00 - $36.00; age 18 and below: $26.00 - $29.00. Student Rush, $15.00, 15 minutes before the performance - cash only, valid ID required. "Pay What You Can" performance on Monday, January 30. For tickets call 952-563-8375 or go to artistrymn.org.
Music: Allen Menken; Book and Lyrics: Howard Ashman; Director and Choreographer: Joe Chvala; Music Director and Conductor: Anita Ruth; Set Design: Eli Schlatter; Costume Design: Ed Gleeman; Wig Design: Paul Bigot; Lighting Design: Mike Grogan; Sound Design: Chris Moen; Properties Design: Katie Phillips; Puppet Design and Construction: Christopher Lutter and Kristi Ternes; Production Manager and Technical Director: Chris Carpenter; Stage Manager: Sarah Perron; Assistant Director: Mike Tober; Assistant Stage Manager: Lee Johnson
Cast: Alicia Britton (Ronette), Falicia Cunningham (Crystal), Michael Fischetti (Mr. Mushnik), Charles Goitia (Wino 2, puppeteer), Courtney Groves (Audrey), Alan Holasek (Wino 1 and others), Ty Hudson (Seymour), Jill Iverson (Chiffon), Brandon Jackson (Audrey II), Philip C. Matthews (Orin).