Little Shop of Horrors
By David A. Rosenberg
It’s not only the beginnings of aviation for which Connecticut should now take credit. How about the beginnings of off-Broadway, that prophetic, invaluable, historical movement that changed the face of the American theater?
Lawrence Langner, who started the Westport Country Playhouse and the Theater Guild, co-founded the Washington Square Players in 1914. A year later, the Provincetown Players began its career, notable for producing plays by Eugene O’Neill who spent his childhood in Connecticut. Both theaters were pioneers from which the movement descended.
It was Wesport / Norwalk’s own Lucille Lortel who was known as the “Queen of Off-Broadway” for her celebrating the off-beat, the avant-garde, the daring, the experimental, the nonconforming.” Her Theater deLys on New York’s Christopher St. housed off-Broadway’s first major musical hit, “The Threepenny Opera.”
Chances are, without the cafes and basements and makeshift spaces that often housed tyro writers, actors and directors, we wouldn’t have musical gems such as “The Fantasticks” which broke every long-run record in the book, “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” “Jacques Brel,” “Dames at Sea,” “The Golden Apple,” “Once Upon a Mattress,” “Your Own Thing,” “Little Mary Sunshine,” “Hair,” “A Chorus Line,” “Grease,” “March of the Falsettos” and, currently, “Fun Home” and “Hamilton.”
Nor would we have the daffy 1982 “Little Shop of Horrors,” now enjoying a revival at Norwalk’s Music Theater of Connecticut. The story of nebbishy Seymour, desperately enamored of squeaky-voiced Audrey and in thrall to a gigantic blood-sucking plant that threatens to take over not only the flower shop where he and Audrey work but the world, was an off-Broadway smash. It won every award possible for best musical during its initial 2,209 performance run.
Mix together a sadistic dentist, a worry-wart shop owner and a female doo-wop trio that comments on the action and the result is good, creepy fun, starting with Seymour’s discovery of a strange, ugly but peculiarly ingratiating plant. Naming it Audrey II after addled Audrey, Seymour doesn’t realize its power. As the plant grows, it attains a place of pride in the shop window, attracting customers and national magazines yearning for a story.
All the while, the engorged plant continues its cries of “Feed me.” Blood is what it wants, first Seymour’s, then…But more will not be revealed here.
Based on Roger Corman’s 1960 send-up of shlock fright films (a movie famous for having been shot in two days), the stage version fits like a glove into MTC’s attractive 110-seat space, perfect for such an intimate show. Director Kevin Connors uses it well, making sure performers play to all three sides of the audience
Such a space demands a comparable intimacy from the production. To be sure, the comedy is still here, the songs are still here, but, except for moments, some of the charm has leached out in favor of that bane of contemporary musical productions: over-sell, abetted by body microphones.
Instead of being clarified, dialogue and lyrics are garbled. Lost are many of Howard Ashman’s lyrics, fit companions to Alan Menken’s music with gems such as the lively “Skid Row,” the yearning “Somewhere That’s Green,” the poignant “Suddenly, Seymour,” the jumpy title tune. The expert actors -- Elissa DeMaria, Kritsian Espiritu, Inuka Ivaska, Tony Lawson, Gabrielle Lee, Peter McClung and Lou Ursone -- over-exert themselves in trying to overwhelm the customers. Most believable is Anthony DiCostanzo, whose puppy-doggish Seymour combines ridiculousness with poignancy.
Since “Little Shop” also sends up the power-mad who grant favors while secretly wanting to rule the world, its political and social appeals have not lessened. It’s as indestructible as that voracious plant.