By Connie Shakalis H-T Reviewer
More dangerous than entering a little shop with a person-eating plant is entering a little theater with high hopes to see a favorite musical. What might have been a disaster of hitting below the bar and politically incorrect stereotypes was a triumph for cast, director, music director, costumers and props and set designers.
“Little Shop of Horrors,” a witty horror movie (1960) turned musical (1982) has been one of my picks since I saw it in Manhattan decades ago. Indiana University grad Howard Ashman, who I met in Times Square — more name dropping — wrote the songs, and he was vastly smart and funny. I say this even though he rejected me, after five callbacks, for a part in his and Marvin Hamlisch’s Broadway musical “Smile.”
Ashman’s grasp of human nature combined with his intelligence and talent for writing lyrics helped transform the cult film of 1960 into a dazzling song-filled satire, where we can observe ourselves in the characters.
Greed, deception, manipulation, hope, first love, murder — they’re all there. Yes, it evokes Faust in that the lead male character, Seymour (Ethan St. Germain), sells his soul to the devil, not so much for power and knowledge, as Faust does, but for the love of Audrey (Nina Donville). But I saw “Hamlet” in there, too: Seymour just isn’t good at deciding, and his waffling leads to a “Hamlet”-ish ending. The man next to me Friday night, noticed themes from Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice,” and “a pound of flesh” and “if you prick us do we not bleed?” do resonate.
A woman in front of me mentioned her slight disdain for the plot’s racism and anti-Semitism, but by the finale, she said she had changed her mind. As I looked around the audience I noticed faces looking dismayed at the references to girlfriend-beating and animal abuse (by the sadistic dentist, played by Christopher Crider-Plonka). Opinions on what is production-appropriate have shifted since 1960 and 1982, and some may take offense in 2019. Humor is always, as I keep learning the hard way, tricky. One woman’s clever punster is another’s oaf.
“Little Shop” is dark, certainly. Seymour works for a Skid Row florist and finds a solar-eclipse-induced plant, which turns out to be carnivorous — live humans preferred. “If only I knew what breed it is, what genus,” he says. St. Germain’s Seymour was the favorite of the man who sat beside me. An orphan (“If I had a mother, she’d be so happy”), Seymour has known neither love nor kindness. His boss, shop owner Mr. Mushnik (a daunting Joshua Robinson) decides to adopt him, not out of love but out of a desire to share Seymour’s popularity and income he now has from owning the plant, Audrey-II. He has named it for his love interest, colleague and shop girl, Audrey. (For the Rotary Club members I noticed in the audience, as Seymour’s fame rises, he receives invitations to speak at their meetings.)
Ellen Greene’s Audrey in the original musical was so good I feared I could never love another, but the moment Donville appeared in her tight black dress and with a painful black eye my hopes escalated. Donville gives Audrey not just the vulnerability and sweetness she needs but adds a non-Ellen-Greene Betty Boopishness. She seemed perfectly cast and nearly stole all of her scenes.
Running away with all of their scenes was the song-and-dance trio, Ronette (singer’s singer, Danielle McKnight), Crystal (the beautiful Victoria Wiley) and Chiffon (an elegant Shai Warfield-Cross). These Skid Row women work a split shift: They went “through the fifth grade, and then we split.” They help narrate the show and provide much of its pizzazz.
Steve Martin played the fiendish dentist, Audrey’s boyfriend, in the musical film, and IU’s Crider-Plonka was just as funny and hellish (Faust again). He seemed to enjoy poking Seymour’s gums with a rusty, “antique,” drill as much as I did watching them. I thought, with a chuckle, of my own kind and sensitive dentist on Third Street. Crider-Plonka also plays a variety of other, smaller, roles, including the wife of the editor of Life Magazine.
My only reservation is the use of New York accents, which in some cases sounded more like Boston, at best. A retail horticulture note — on Long Island I saw nurseries offering for sale invasive plant species, such as Japanese knotweed, which is pretty but can take over an entire yard, destroying habitat. A lesson here?
Jeremy Gussin gave a sonorously good voice to the Audrey-II puppet, and I wondered if the audience’s children were shuddering; I would have been had I not known the play so well. “Manning” this work-of-art puppet was Michael Bayler.
Terry LaBolt directed the music and played in the orchestra. He brought me near tears several times. Choreographers need to be good storytellers, and D.J. Gray kept the singing trio bouncing and also designed one of the night’s best features, a duet between father (Robinson) and newly adopted son (St. Germain).
Richard Roland, whose other works I’ve admired, particularly his recent “Wonderful Town,” directed this monstrously good murder musical.