Little Shop of Horrors: Open Up and Say “Ahhhhh”
By Brooks Appelbaum
How nice: The Ivoryton Playhouse is ushering in the fall with a cozy little musical inspired by a beloved film that features a love triangle set in the world of retail, a store owner/father-figure, and a controversial product for sale...but wait! There ends any resemblance to She Loves Me, based on the Ernst Lubitsch film, The Little Shop around the Corner. In Little Shop of Horrors, based on Roger Corman’s film and Charles Griffith’s screenplay, all the aforementioned elements have a decidedly kinky and comically horrifying spin.
A fully successful production needs, above all, ideal casting so that we can care about the innocent protagonists, Audrey and Seymour, even as the plot, like the plant, swells in absurdity. In this respect, director Lawrence Thelen has not done the show justice. As a result, we come away having enjoyed a few standout songs and one terrific performance, but we are neither especially elated nor especially moved by this zany show.
For those not familiar with Little Shop of Horrors, picture the legend of Dr. Faustus set to the sounds of doo-wop, early Motown, and 1960’s rock and roll. In Skid Row, a sweet schlemiel, Seymour (Nicholas Park), works at a failing flower shop under Mr. Mushnik (David Conaway), his belligerent boss. The only light in Seymour’s life is his fellow florist, the lovely Audrey (Laura Woyasz). Audrey regularly comes to work with a black eye or broken arm, courtesy of her sadistic dentist boyfriend, Orin (Carson Higgins).
Just before the shop is about to go under, Seymour produces an exotic plant that he’s been tending, and this plant begins to draw customers’ attention. Terrifically voiced by Steve Sabol and animated by Austin Costello, Audrey II (as Seymour wistfully names his botanical discovery) displays a decided preference for blood over plant food, and then. . . well, you can imagine Seymour’s dilemma.
Helping to fill in this bizarre plot are a Greek chorus of wily teen-agers who happen to sing like the Supremes (the terrific Azarria White, La’Nette Wallace, and Denielle Marie Gray). A six piece band plays Alan Menken’s tuneful score: conductor Robert James Tomasulo (also Keyboard 1); Luke McGinnis (Keyboard 2); Daniel Kraszewski and Dominic DeMonico (Bass); Doug Guidone (Guitar); and Mike Conlin (Drums/Percussion).
The main problem with director Thelen’s production lies in casting. For the show to work, we must believe that Seymour and Audrey are innocents. Seymour, an orphan, is pathetically grateful to Mr. Mushnik for slave labor and abuse. His love for Audrey must feel touching as only first love can. Nicholas Park simply appears too mature for the role, and he has been directed to over-act rather than to focus on the truth of the character’s yearnings and fears.
Similarly, the key to Audrey’s charm lies in the contrast between her fresh and youthful sweetness and her low self-esteem: her dentist boyfriend is a “semi-sadist,” because she claims to deserve only a “creep.” Yet unless we see that Audrey’s vision of her corruption arises from her innocence, the poignancy and the comedy are lost.
Nancy Woyasz has a crystalline voice and a lovely feel for the character. Yet she looks far more world-weary than Audrey should. Woyasz’s beauty brings to mind the early 1930’s Marlene Dietrich: she is the perfect Vanda in Venus in Fur, which she has played. As Audrey, though, her looks work against her, and director Thelen should have cast differently. Another casting misstep mars Mr. Mushnik, who must have an air of the Eastern European about him: Yiddish phrases sparkle in his big number, “Mushnik and Son.” David Conaway, lacking this quality, has simply been miscast.
Carson Higgins, who gave such a terrific performance in Ivoryton’s Memphis, steals this show as Orin, the dentist. He is one of those actors who generate so much infectious joy in performing that you don’t want his scenes to end, and you can’t wait to see him return to the stage.
The other real star of this production is Martin Scott Marchitto’s set. I’ll leave you the surprise of what he has done with the pocket-sized Ivoryton stage, but just know that if you venture into this Little Shop of Horrors, despite what you know about the sadistic Orin, you will open up and say, “Ahhhh.”
Little Shop of Horrors runs through October 11. Tickets are available by calling the Ivoryton Playhouse box office at 860-767-7318 or by visiting the website at www.ivorytonplayhouse.org (Group rates are available by calling the box office for information.) The Playhouse is located at 103 Main Street in Ivoryton.