Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, August 2007
Even theatre critics have their favorite shows, and it is no secret that Little Shop of Horrors is one of mine. My son Brandon and I make pilgrimages to see it whenever it is presented within reasonable driving distance. We have seen everything from an all-male middle-school-aged cast (remarkably good, actually) to the touring company of the recent Broadway production. We know every word, every note, every lyric, and we have developed special signals to communicate our opinions at key moments.
But in case you are not as intimately acquainted with this piece, allow me to fill you in. Little Shop of Horrors, which was a huge hit off-Broadway in 1982, is based on a low-budget 1960 Roger Corman film of the same name and also on the classic German Faust legend. It was the first success for the creative team of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, who went on to pen the scores to the wildly popular Disney films The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin before Ashman’s untimely death from AIDS in 1991.
Little Shop... is set on Skid Row in New York City in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s and features a fabulous score that sends up the popular music of that time. In fact three female street urchins – named Crystal (Masonya Berry), Chiffon (Jillian Wallach), and Ronnette (Kristyl Dawn Tift) after Supremes-style girl groups of the era – provide a Greek chorus of running musical commentary throughout the show. The plot centers on the hapless Seymour Krelborn (Trey Compton), an orphan taken in as free labor by Mr. Mushnik (John Trainor), proprietor of that dismal business, Mushnik’s Skid Row Florist. Mushnik’s only other employee is a pathetic young woman named Audrey (Elaine Hayhurst) who is dating a sadistic dentist, Orin Scrivello, DDS (Matthew Daly, who also plays a number of other minor roles). To prevent Mushnik from closing the shop and rendering them all unemployed, Audrey convinces him to feature a strange and unusual plant that Seymour has developed, and named the Audrey II in her honor, in the window display. The Audrey II does indeed create a surprising change in all of their fortunes…but at a price.
Little Shop... is the kind of small-scale, quirky musical that the Theater Barn does very well, and so when it was announced as their big final musical of the summer (they do two more non-musical shows in September) we were very excited. We had very, very high hopes that this production would follow the example set by the Barn’s last two late August musicals – The Full Monty and Urinetown – and be practically perfect. Well, it wasn’t, but very few things are. On the Gail and Brandon Scale of Nearly Obsessive Infatuation, it fell short. Taking a broader and more objective view, this is a strong production with a lot of entertainment value. The problems lay in the casting of the leading roles and in the set.
Ellen Greene’s performance as Audrey is iconic, and, unlike many famous theatrical leading ladies – Julie Andrews, Angela Lansbury, Carol Channing, and Harvey Fierstein spring to mind – Greene got to recreate her performance in the 1986 film. And it is a performance. Audrey is a complete creation – she looks and sounds nothing like the real Ellen Greene. Greene defined who Audrey was and what she looked and sounded like and everyone has a clear memory of it from the film. Most actresses slap on a blonde wig, Wonder Bra, and stiletto heels and do their best to emulate the breathless Brooklynese style of speaking and singing Greene invented.
Here director Keith Andrews allows Hayhurst to remain her own red-headed self, which works well. Brandon ventured the opinion that Audrey should be a blonde and could be a redhead, but NEVER a brunette, and I think he’s right. But Hayhurst’s efforts to reproduce Audrey’s voice and accent when speaking and singing are uneven. Particularly when she belts, she looses the softness and the Brooklyn accent.
Compton also has problems vocally, but very different ones. Hayhurst has plenty of volume, but Compton doesn’t. The Theater Barn does not use microphones (hooray!) and so Musical Director Michael McAssey has to have the little three piece band (McAssey on keyboards, Walter Bauer on bass, and Mary Rodriguez on percussion) play pianissimo while he solos, which is usually inappropriate.
Both Compton and Hayhurst give pleasant performances, but what they fail to impart to their characters is the sense of pathetic desperation that pervades these people’s lives and makes them behave the way they do. Combined with Trainor’s harsh and unsympathetic Mushnik and Abe Phelps inexplicably awful set, there are real obstacles for these two actors to overcome.
Yes, Mushnik is an ethnic stereotype, and Trainor is just not ethnic enough for the role, as is obvious when he flubs the cantor-style vocals called for towards the end of Mushnik and Son. But he also doesn’t allow the character to show any human interest in Syemour, and, more importantly, Audrey. Dysfunctional as they are, the team at Mushnik’s should be a kind of family, and here they aren’t.
Luckily Berry, Tift, and Wallach are one of the very best trios of urchins I have seen in a long, long time, and their lively and powerful vocals go a long way to compensating for the wobbly performances of the three leads. They are three women with distinctly different types of physical beauty and Andrews gives each a chance to show off their unique vocal talents as well. If only Costume Designer Jonathan Knipscher, who has done a fine job overall, had managed to design satin evening gowns that flattered each actress, rather than emphasizing various figure flaws instead. Luckily the gowns only make a brief appearance and I was glad they got to take their final bows in appealing black ensembles which clearly had been tailored to each lady’s body type.
But the actor who really made me and Brandon tremendously happy was Daly. Andrews has given obviously him free rein and Daly makes each of the characters he plays hilariously funny and absolutely unique. He takes wild chances physically, which is fun to watch (he has a great drunken stagger going there). I loved him slithering all over the dentist’s chair as Orin.
The plant, Audrey II, is represented by four increasingly large puppets. The first two are standard hand puppets, although the second is very cleverly worn and manipulated by Compton. The second two require at least one puppeteer inside and another performer who provides the speaking and singing voice (yes, the plant talks and sings, among other things…) Here John Edwards, who also gets a nice little solo moment outside the plat suit in the show’s only ensemble number Skid Row, is the puppeteer and Edgar Acevedo does the voice. I mentioned that the Barn doesn’t use mikes, but of course the voice of Audrey II is provided via microphone from off-stage. This lack of in-house expertise in sound engineering led to the unfortunate circumstance that Acevedo sounded like he actually WAS singing from inside the plant puppet – all muffled and fuzzy – instead of providing a clear vocal personality.
No one is credited with puppet creation/construction so I assume these Audrey IIs were rented – not an uncommon practice. I have seen worse, but I have also seen much better. The third Audrey II looked decidedly like a lopsided hamburger, and the “secret” of the fourth puppet’s ability consume its meals was way too evident. But Edwards does a great job bringing the two bigger puppets to life. You would be appalled if I explained to you the torturous physical positions the puppeteer has to assume in order to manipulate those plants. Suffice it to say it ain’t easy and to give them personality as well as mobility is a good trick that Edwards pulls off nicely.
I am a big, big fan of Abe Phelps’ sets, but here he has got it all wrong. I know it is supposed to be a “little shop” but Phelps has pushed the whole set so far forward and confined the shop itself to a rectangle barely larger than an average brownstone stoop so the actors are literally climbing over each other to get around. Yes, there needs to be a certain amount of space behind the set for the puppets and their equipment, and the Theater Barn doesn’t have the world’s biggest stage, but I have seen many productions of this show in small theatres and there are better ways to do it.
I will warn families with young children that Little Shop... can be very scary. The stage version does NOT have the happy ending that the 1986 film does (they actually tested the film with the original ending and it depressed audiences so much that they shot a new ending and slapped it on.) I first took Brandon to see this show when he was about seven or eight because he had seen the Corman film and was completely terrified. I arranged with the director ahead of time that we would be able to go backstage and see and touch the plant puppets after the show so that Brandon could understand that they were NOT real and how the stage magic was created. Now, at eighteen, he loves Little Shop... and prefers the stage finale to the film’s, but it took many years for him to get to that place.
Little Shop of Horrors runs through September 2 at the Theater Barn, located on Rt. 20 just west of the town of New Lebanon, NY. The show runs just under two hours and is suitable for ages 10 and up. It is NOT for the faint of heart! Call the box office at 518-794-8989 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2007