“Little Shop of Horrors” Flowers at Ivoryton

By Geary Danihy


There’s something deadly growing out in Ivoryton. It’s big and green and mean -- imagine the venus fly trap cross-bred with kudzu and then pumped full of steroids and you get the picture. This voracious creature goes by the innocuous name of Audrey II, but don’t be fooled -- it will eat you as soon as look at you, but you may wish to look at it, at least from the safety of a seat at the Ivoryton Playhouse, where Little Shop of Horrors, a delightful, black-comedy spoof of 1950s creature-feature movies is currently enjoying a run. Following on the heels of Ivoryton’s successful productions of South Pacific and Memphis, this exploration of botanical Grand Guignol, briskly directed by Lawrence Thelen, is, by and large, a treat for the eyes and ears.

Graced by a highly adaptable, turn-table set designed by Martin Scott Marchitto, this sci-fi spoof opens with a Greek chorus of sorts: Chiffon (Azarria White), Crystal (La’Nette Wallace) and Ronnette (Denielle Marie Gray), grade-school dropouts, set the scene for the horrors that will ensue. They are denizens of Skid Row, where Mushnik’s florist shop is dying on the vine. Mr. Mushnik (David Conaway) is close to despair because business is so bad. In fact, he’s ready to fire his two assistants, the meek, amateur botanist Seymour (Nicholas Park) and the much abused Audrey (Laura Woyasz), a young lady working on exceedingly low wattage who is dating Orin (Carson Higgins), a demented dentist who grooves on pain.

Salvation arrives in the form of a small plant that Seymour came across during a total eclipse of the sun, a plant he has lovingly cared for and named Audrey II (animated by Austin Costello and voiced by Steve Sabol). As soon as the plant is put on display business starts to pick up, but every silver lining has a cloud attached -- the plant is a persnickety eater: it desires only blood. At first this is supplied by Seymour, but soon the plant craves more and Seymour is forced to become murderously creative. The plant grows, Seymour becomes a success, in the process winning the fair hand of the ditzy Audrey, but there is a price to be paid when you sell your soul to a devil-plant.

Based on the cult film classic of the same name directed by Roger Corman, with book and lyrics by Howard Ashman and music by Alan Menken, Little Shop is not only a skewed take on the paranoid “scare” films of the 50s, it is a modernized Greek tragedy complete with characters with out-sized fatal flaws. It is also tuneful and energetic, although the energy takes a while to be generated.

Perhaps it’s the initially uneven sound, designed by Tate R. Burmeister, or the less than innovative and somewhat stilted opening choreography crafted by Apollo Smile, but the musical’s initial scenes seem somewhat muted. The “Downtown” number, which should feature the voices of the two leads -- Audrey and Seymour -- is more of a mushy melange. In fact, Woyasz’s voice seems to get lost in the vocal crowd (she’s blocked extreme stage right for much of the number and dimly lit) and Seymour, stage center inside the florist shop, is oddly distant. Matters aren’t helped by Conaway delivering his opening lines so big that he really has nowhere to go dramatically for the rest of the show.

These problems aside, the production quickly brightens and sharpens as Audrey II begins to grow and Woyasz, Park and Higgins take control. Anyone familiar with Little Shop, either in its Broadway or Hollywood iterations, has Ellen Greene’s performance as Audrey etched in his mind. To Woyasz’s credit, she creates an Audrey that’s all her own, using a walk that reminds one of a strutting turkey, plus dips, cringes and other mannerisms, as well as subtle body-language reactions. Once her voice is allowed to be heard, she delivers a poignant “Somewhere That’s Green” and a moving duet with Park in “Suddenly, Seymour.”

Park is sufficiently meek and gawky as Seymour, and he’s able to generate real angst as he begins to deal with the moral ambiguity presented by the continued existence of Audrey II. Higgins, who shined in Ivoryton’s Memphis, does the sadistic-dentist turn to a fault, especially in the “Dentist!” number, pulls off a great death-by-nitrous-oxide scene with Park, and shows his ability as a quick-change artist when he is called upon to play three different characters (including a female editor) all seeking to get Seymour to sign contracts.

The finale finds most of the cast having been devoured by the insatiable plant, only to reappear as its tendrils singing a final warning about the danger of feeding plants. The only problem here is the use of a smoke machine, which belches out so much smoke as the finale begins that it’s difficult to see what is happening on stage. The smoke envelops the actors and wafts out into the audience – a bit of atmospheric overkill that is totally unnecessary.

Quibbles and smoke screens aside, Ivoryton’s Little Shop is a sprightly production that consistently entertains. Artfully staged (actually amazingly so, given the size of Ivoryton’s stage) and nicely paced, with excellent lighting effects by Marcus Abbott, the show, which runs just under two hours with a 15-minute intermission, is well worth the drive out to scenic Ivoryton.

Little Shop of Horrors runs through Oct. 11. For tickets or more information call 860-767-7318 or go to www.ivorytonplayhouse.org.

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CONNECTICUT CRITICS CIRCLE