They just don't get it. It is a pity, because "Little Shop of Horrors" is a perfectly constructed small-scale musical, and it has legions of devoted fans - myself included. But the Williams students who have mounted the current production on the AMT Downstage just don't get the style of this show.
I get tired of hearing myself refer to Williams students as being rather too vanilla. I know that that is not actually the case for the entire student body - but it certainly seems to apply to the students currently involved in the theatre. And this lot is way too preppy to get down and dirty on Skid Row with Seymour, Audrey, Crystal, Chiffon and Ronette.
"Little Shop of Horrors" is about people who are complete and utter failures - so desparate that they sell their souls to a man-eating plant. Seymour Krellborn is an orphan, taken in many years ago as unpaid labor by Mr. Mushnik, proprietor of Mushnik's Skid Row Florists. Flowers aren't exactly big business on Skid Row, and, as the show opens, Mushnik is ready to close down. But his other employee, Audrey, the ultimate victim, convinces him to let Seymour put one of his "strange and unusual plants" in the window to attract business. Enter the Audrey Two, an extraterrestrial plant with a plan. Immediately business is booming and Mushnik offers to adopt Seymour, but what the rest of the world doesn't know is that Seymour keeps Audrey Two alive by feeding it his own blood.
By the end of Act I the plant is talking, singing, and taking up a considerable portion of the stage, and Seymour has fed it Audrey's sadistic Dentist boyfriend Orin for supper. Mushnik becomes its next meal, followed by Audrey and Seymour, before an enterprising young man comes to take cuttings to market Audrey Two across the country...
Although the cast for the is show is small (you can do it with ten actors if you work hard) there is nothing small about the demands it puts on the cast, or the tech crew. The music moves the show along rapidly, which means everyone is singing all the time. And those Audrey Two puppets require a great deal of physical and technical manouvering.
Starting with a good sized hand puppet, Audrey Two grows to require at least one very strong puppeteer inside it. Cap and Bells has rented some of the best looking puppets I have ever seen, but they manipulate them badly. I couldn't tell how many performers were inside the last and largest puppet, or exactly how it was manipulated, but the last two versions I saw required the actor inside to do sit-ups to open and close the jaws - in other words the puppeteer's legs were inside the lower jaw and his/her torso and arms were in the upper jaw. When you then consider that the jaws have to be manipulated to match the speaking and singing of the actor doing the voice, with whom the puppeteer has no visual contact, you get some idea of the strenuous work involved in bringing Audrey Two to life. Writing the check to rent the puppets is the least of a theatre's worries when staging "Little Shop".
The good news here is that Lucas Peterson, who provides Audrey Two's voice, is one heck of a singer. He gets it just right. And he seemed to bring Ben Isecke as Seymour vividly to life too. Isecke is the right physical type for Seymour, and sings very sweetly, but until he did that first duet with Audrey Two he wasn't projecting as well as he could. Suddenly I cared about Seymour, and that is an important element in this show.
Alas, I never could care for Sarah Hart's Audrey. In the tradition started by the wonderous Ellen Greene in the original off-Broadway production, Audrey is usually played to look like Marilyn Monroe dressed as a cheap hooker, and sound like she has inhaled at least a quart of helium. While Audrey doesn't need to be bleached blonde (Hart is a red head) she does need to be more clealrly defined as a woman incapable of loving herself. Hart failed to capture Audrey's self-loathing, her pathetic passivity, and that "deer-in-the-headlights" fear that should come over her face when she realizes she has overstepped the huge boundaries that she perceives surrounding her. Does Audrey need to be an impression of Ellen Greene? No, but she needs to be true to herself, and that is where Hart fails.
Once again, I come to the vanilla issue when I look at the women's costumes and start in on the back-up singers. These are women of questionable virtue who live and work on Skid Row, and they are dressed in what can only be described as a Williams student's version of bad taste. It isn't as if bad taste is hard to come by in this world, and it can usually be found for cheap in any thrift shop.
But even if you had kitted out Katie Rocker, CJ Tyson, and Melissa Vecchio in the tackiest of clothes, they still would have been sorely lacking in attitude. One of the concepts that makes "Little Shop" the perfect piece of theatre that it is is the presence of the "back-up singers" - a Greek chorus of a black 1960's girl-group (each girl is named for a famous black 1960's girl-group, The Crystals, The Chiffons and The Ronettes) who comment musically on the plot. Only one of these three actresses is black, but that is not really the issue here. I have seen white and latina women do these roles successfully. Heck, I've seen MEN do these roles with more edge than these three.
Maybe its all in selling your soul. I would sell my soul to be in "Little Shop" (I want to be the singing/speaking voice of the plant!) and I don't think anyone on this stage has done that. They are doing a half-hearted impression of a group of students staging "Little Shop of Horrors". They should send those Audrey Two puppets back and worry about their finals.
And you should skip this production and go and rent the video. I know they screwed up the ending in the film, but you get to see Ellen Greene...
P.S. Robert Zalkind, who seems uncomfortable in his skin (or maybe its that suit) as Mushnik, has a GORGEOUS bass voice. That is the first time I have ever seen "Mushnik & Son" bring down the house. I want to hear and see a lot more of this talented young man in the future.
The Cap and Bells production of "Little Shop of Horrors" has one more performance at 8 PM on December 10 at the AMT Downstage, 1000 Main Street in Williamstown. The show runs two hours with one intermission. Tickets are $5 at the door, and get there early as this is a popular show.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 1999