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Little Shop of Horrors is running now until Feb 7th, 2016 at the Allen Theater at Cleveland’s Playhouse Square. Click this link for more information.
Though its B-movie premise makes Little Shop of Horrors ripe for over-the-top acting and hokey tongue-in-cheek parody, this particular production of the musical works best when pondering its central Faustian dilemma: Is it best to sacrifice one’s morals for a chance at success? It’s the perfect question for a musical, considering that artists, writers, actors and musicians have been asking themselves the same question since entertainment became a commercial enterprise. Little Shop posits the old moral that two wrongs ultimately don’t make a right, suggesting that perhaps it’s better to die nobly in squalor than via the karmic interference of your own Frankenstein.
Seasoned theatergoers and film-lovers alike know the tale (though the latter perhaps missed out on the stage version’s darker conclusion). Dweeby botanist Seymour loves abused Brooklyn bimbo Audrey, enough so that he names a strange, newly discovered plant after her. The plant, Audrey II, develops an ever-growing bloodlust, which Seymour begrudgingly encourages in order to propel the fame that the “strange and interesting” plant brings with it. When Audrey II demands a dietary upgrade from tiny blood droplets to human meat, Seymour makes his deal with the devil. He’ll kill Orin, Audrey One’s abusive boyfriend, and feed Orin’s chopped-up corpse to Audrey Two in order to receive the plant’s promises of fame, fortune and romance.
This particular production comes to life with vivid artistry. The set is beautifully constructed with rigid, eye-drawing angles, an excellent use of shadows, and an interior that opens like a dollhouse. Most notably, the street urchins who provide back-up to the musical numbers are composed of an all-girl rock band. The girls play their instruments live on stage and when they’re not playing, they watch the play with intense focus. They’re the greek chorus and the Donnas all rolled into one. It feels like a fun modern twist on the doo-wap stylings of the movie’s urchins. Rather than being marginalized pop-ins, the band remains onstage like a classic Greek chorus and provides the audience with a second set of eyes and ears.
As for the acting, Ari Butler and Lauren Molina shine as Seymour and Audrey, especially when they let the show’s goofy dialogue do the heavy lifting. Everything about Little Shop screams b-movie, so Butler and Molina’s dramatic authenticity came as a pleasant surprise. Larry Cahn’s restrained and human take on Mr. Mushnik, a character who is typically played as conniving and cruel, is likewise interesting. Here Mushnik is a semi-honest businessman struggling to survive with the rest of Skid Row. This is the first production of Little Shop I’ve seen where I actually felt bad when Audrey II swallowed Mushnik whole. It makes Seymour a little more sinister and complicated when you can believe that maybe Mushnik had some good in him, and that Seymour was willing to sacrifice that goodness in order to survive.
There are other hints at modernity here too, but some clash directly with the show’s dated diction and archaic take on women’s rights. Jokes about Orin physically abusing Audrey don’t seem as funny in the Jessica Jones era of entertainment. Joey Taranto’s Orin is trapped between the uncomfortable abuse plotline and Steve Martin’s iconic turn as the demented dentist. He plays the character as written, but what once was clever now seems stale through a modern lens. Corny dental jokes don’t quite land the way they used to, and it’s hard to take a minute to appreciate his schtick when Audrey’s abuse seems so convincing. Costume-wise, Orin has stylistic shout-outs to Christian Grey and Mad Max: Fury Road, but even those feel a little tacked-on in comparison to the rest of the show’s effortless charm.
Musically, all of Little Shop‘s numbers are about equally catchy, for good and for bad. Almost every song has a memorable hook or two, but this production’s rapid pace makes them blend together so that none of the songs stand-out as a showstopper the way Feed Me and Suddenly Seymour do in the movie. The pace is otherwise a godsend. It’s a brisk two-acts with intermission, and though the aged theatergoing audiences might argue otherwise, I think that the intermission could have easily been omitted. It’s impressive how quickly the book of the show makes you accustomed to the idea that down-on-their-luck botanists have discovered a magic space plant that sucks blood. Sure, why not! We’re here to have a good time and a broad premise like this should be piping with comedy.
Perhaps I am overly familiar with this show’s punchlines, but I found myself enjoying the drama more this time. The sad poverty of Skid Row felt palpable in this production, perhaps accentuated by Mushnik’s plight. The play suggests that a deal with the devil will always end in despair, yet the characters aren’t much better off before the plant gets involved. Seymour and Company are trapped between a rock and a hard place, so you can’t really blame the guy for getting in over his head with a wish-granting plant. Maybe you’d make the same tough call if it meant the difference between starvation and your next meal.
That being said, there’s a tad too much character mugging at times in this production. It comes off as unnecessary in a show that’s already so outlandish. Whenever the actors play the bizarre dialogue sincerely, it’s remarkably effective. Also worth noting is the director’s obsession with making her actors over-enunciate the letter ‘t’. “It’s LIT-TUL shop, not LIDDLE shop,” I imagine her saying, before making the cast recite endless vocal warmups. It’s the kind of peculiarity that exists in theater and theater alone. The rest of us are just fine with hearing words pronounced casually and colloquially, as that’s how they’re normally said. Were this Shakespeare there might be a case for speaking the Queen’s English, but in a gory campfest like Little Shop it feels self-indulgent and unnecessary.
Most of the staging works flawlessly, but there are a few moments- Orin’s gas-induced death and Suddenly Seymour in particular- that felt a little static. While Orin suffers his way through the show’s weakest number, describing his own asphyxiation in real-time, the real focus should be on Seymour’s moral dilemma. Should he let the bad guy croak to save his own skin, or should he be the sweet natured guy he’s supposed to be and save the villain’s life? I mean, come on, Seymour! What would Mighty Mouse do? Instead the song and its staging make Orin’s death seem like a done deal, missing out on a great opportunity to show Seymour’s internal conflict. Ari Butler’s Seymour has great skill in tossing himself around stage like a ragdoll without stumbling, so maybe some movement could have spiced things up. As for Suddenly Seymour, it’s a tragic case of artistic blue balls. We have this beautiful fire escape and balcony on stage, assumably to be used in the show’s big romantic number, but instead the characters belt to each other downstage near the audience, making the moment less personal and more basic.
Overall this incarnation of Little Shop is my favorite staged version that I’ve seen, breathing new life into what I considered to be a fairly outdated tale. The core question of Little Shop speaks to the delicate balance artists must strike between personal success and morality. Thanks to the cheeky guidance of the urchin girl group, we know we shouldn’t be taking this question too seriously, but it’s satisfying that the play works on both a cerebral moralistic level and a good-old-fasioned schlock comedy level as well. Speedy and well-acted, Little Shop is relatively family friendly (assuming your kids know the difference between real and fake intestines and won’t go to bed screaming). If you’re in the Cleveland area and looking for a pick-me-up, this show is my top pick.