Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Little Shop of Horrors
Also see Gil's recent review of Shakespeare in Love
Little Shop of Horrors is a timeless musical comedy that humorously combines elements of horror, comedy, and romance into a quirky narrative that's centered on Seymour Krelborn, a young florist with a knack for botany who works in a Skid Row flower show. When he discovers a strange and unusual carnivorous plant, he names it Audrey II in homage to his co-worker Audrey whom he is in love with, and the plot finds Seymour having to feed the plant blood in order to get it to thrive. When Audrey II keeps growing, it brings Seymour fame but it also means Seymour has to continually find it fresh blood which provides many unexpected twists in the plot, along with a lot of dark humor.
Howard Ashman (book/lyrics) and Alan Menken's (music) musical spoof of the Roger Corman 1960 sci-fi/horror-filled B movie of the same name was a smash hit when it premiered Off-Broadway in 1982, running for five years. The score is witty, soulful and endearing. The book is concise with just enough information to flesh out the characters but without any unnecessary business to get in the way of the plot.
Kieara Kurtz-Williams' direction features seamless transitions, well-paced scenes, and leads who are talented actor-singers who create warm and winning portrayals. Kurtz-Williams and the cast clearly understand the humorous yet campy nature of the material which translates into engaging and polished performances. The decision to include a large ensemble in what is traditionally an eight-person cast has its pros and cons: it works well to depict the large number of inquisitive Skid Row onlookers who have come to see Audrey II, but it also occasionally detracts from the main characters.
While the choreography by Gianluca Russo is unique and danced well by the cast, there are a few times when the dance movements by the large ensemble pull focus from the main characters and from the superb lyrics that Ashman wrote. This is especially present in "Downtown" when all of the main characters are being introduced as well as in "Somewhere That's Green" when the choreography isn't entirely additive to the songs. There are also some moments in both the staging and the choreography when the ensemble are downstage, which blocks attention from the main characters who are situated in the upstage florist shop. Fortunately, those moments aren't that frequent and Russo does add a fun bit of tap for "Mushnik and Son" that is charming and a crowd pleaser.
Danté X Johnson has a perfect blend of nerdy charm and endearing awkwardness as Seymour. His clear vocals project the sincerity that makes Seymour's journey relatable and engaging, and his acting choices clearly demonstrate the conflicted dilemmas Seymour faces. As Audrey, Michala Montaño doesn't play the character as the typical dumb blonde, which has been the case with many productions that I've seen, and that a nice change. Montaño's Audrey is simply a down on her luck woman who is dating a sadistic man when we first meet her. Her vocals soar and her rendition of "Somewhere That's Green" is an absolute delight, embracing the character's innocence, dreams and resilience. The chemistry between Johnson's Seymour and Montaño's Audrey is palpable, adding depth to their quirky love story and their duet of "Suddenly, Seymour" is soulful and a major highlight.
In the supporting cast, Jacob Litt is an absolute mensch as the uptight Mr. Mushnik, with a clear understanding of the character, and Rudy Bogojevich is a hoot as the sadistic yet hilarious dentist Orin, who is dating Audrey. BreAwna Harpe, Britney Montgomery, Shaylee Flanagan are sassy and spunky as the street-smart trio of Crystal, Ronette, and Chiffon, respectively, with a few moments where each gets to show off their powerful vocals, and Jared Kitch delivers powerful vocals as the voice of Audrey II, the carnivorous plant, brought to life through the talented puppetry skills of Celeste Hompstead.
Mike Esparza's scenic design works well for Mushnik's florist shop and the various other locales in the show and, combined with the great lighting design by Matt Stetler, creates the slightly campy and eerie world of Skid Row. The costumes by Kurtz-Williams and Ali Kallis are character appropriate. Music director Amanda Bagley derives bright notes from the leads and warm harmonies from the ensemble.
Little Shop of Horrors, presented by Mesa Encore Theatre, runs through November 19, 2023, at Mesa Arts Center, 1 East Main Street, Mesa AZ. For tickets and information, please call 480-644-6500 or visit mesaencoretheatre.com.
Producing Artistic Director: Taylor Moschetti