By Colin Douglas
Welcome back, Audrey, Seymour, Mr. Mushnik, Orin and all the other crazy characters in 1982’s comic book horror rock musical, Little Shop of Horrors. It’s been too long, but American Blues Theater’s new production has made it well worth the wait.
Based on Roger Corman’s darkly humorous science fiction film from 1960, Composer Alan Menken and Writer/Lyricist Howard Ashman initially created this cult classic for off-off-Broadway. It eventually found its way to off-Broadway, and eventually even made its way onto the Great White Way in 2003. The show was also adapted for the silver screen and became a popular 1986 film musical. A worldwide favorite, wherever and whenever this very funny, satirical, tuneful sci-fi musical is produced it’s always a hit. And this production is no exception.
Seymour is a likable, nebbish young worker at Mr. Mushnik’s Skid Row Flower Shop in New York City. An orphan whose life seems to be going nowhere, he secretly has a crush on Audrey, his beautiful, buxom co-worker. Audrey, however, is a woman with very low self-esteem. As a result, she’s become involved with a sadistic dentist named Orin, who beats, berates and bullies her, much to everyone’s horror and disapproval.
In a trio of opening numbers (the title song, “Skid Row” and, especially a ditty called “Da-Doo”) we learn that Seymour just happened to be walking through the gardening district one day when, during a total eclipse of the sun, a new and unusual plant suddenly appeared before him. The proprietor sold the rare, but sickly little plant to Seymour, who brought it back to Mushnik’s Flower Shop. In the back room he secretly nurses it to health (“Grow For Me”) and when Seymour puts it in the shop window, the plant, which he’s named Audrey II, begins to draw the attention of hundreds of customers. Business takes off like firecrackers and Seymour becomes an instant celebrity. The only problem is that the plant thrives on human blood.
Meanwhile, Audrey’s boyfriend is becoming more and more violent and abusive. Seymour decides to solve two problems. He becomes convinced that Orin would make perfect plant food for Audrey II and, in secretly feeding the dentist to the plant, he’d also rid Audrey of her sadistic suitor. From then on complications develop and one crime leads to another. Soon there’s no stopping the Audrey II and its cannibalistic takeover of the world.
The musical features a melodic, toe-tapping pop/rock score that mimics the doo-wop sound of the 60’s. Menken’s catchy, uptempo numbers, with witty Award-winning lyrics by Ashman, become earworms by intermission. They include two soulful ballads, Audrey’s “Somewhere That’s Green” and the couple’s triumphant “Suddenly Seymour.” These two songs can truly stand on their own. While everyone in the cast has his musical moments, it’s the engaging and entertaining trio, Crystal, Ronnette and Chiffon, who become a combination of narrator, Greek chorus and backup group for the show.
As these three street urchins, Camille Robinson, Jasondra Johnson and Eunice Woods practically steal the show. Sharing the stage with the main characters, they enchant with, among other numbers, their impassioned renditions of “Don’t It Go To Show You Never Know,” “The Meek Shall Inherit” and the dramatic finale, “Don’t Feed the Plants.” Darian Tene and Yando Lopez also join in the choral numbers, as well as Lorenzo Rush, Jr., who also provides the velvety voice of Audrey II.
But this show truly belongs to the impressive Dara Cameron and Michael Mahler, as Audrey and Seymour. This acting/singing duo are absolutely exquisite in everything they undertake, but in this show they’ve reached the peak of perfection. Real-life husband and wife, their obvious love for each other shines just as strongly onstage, playing off each other and making their storybook romance as real as it gets.
Cameron is hilarious as the sweetly naive girl from Skid Row who thinks she’s undeserving of any love and kindness. Her plaintive “Somewhere That’s Green” almost stops the show with its unselfish sincerity and sentiment. Cameron uses her big voice to its full advantage in this role, sporting huge hair and tiny skirts, high heels and low-cut blouses. Mahler is everything Ashman and Menken probably envisioned as Seymour. With his innocent, youthful looks, his earnest delivery of lyric and line and his superb musicality, Mahler is the most lovable leading man imaginable. As Seymour, Michael could be the poster boy to represent the company’s theme for this season, “Seeing is Believing.” Anyone looking at this ardent young actor will know he’s the real deal.
One of Chicago’s finest and best-loved character actors, Mark David Kaplan adds another well-played role to his already impressive resume. His Mr. Mushnik is right on the money. The actor’s spot-on portrayal of this quirky Skid Row florist, who keeps a sharp eye on the financial success of his business, still finds compassion for his two young employees. Of course, it helps that Kaplan is also a gifted singer and he makes the most of ensemble numbers, like “Closed for Renovations,” and particularly his funny, fast-paced tango, “Mushnik and Son.” Ian Paul Custer, a standout in this company’s recent “Yankee Tavern,” creates a smarmy, perverted, grinning, overbearing Orin. His autobiographical cha cha, appropriately called “Dentist!” is sung with relish and rapture. Custer’s scenes with both Cameron and Mahler are delivered with vigor and a sense that his character’s absolutely clueless about what lies ahead.
Jonathan Berry’s direction and expertise with this style of musical comedy is faultless. He’s staged his production with economy and efficiency, drawing the humor out of perfected pacing and razor-sharp timing. Musical direction and keyboard accompaniment by talented Austin Cook is, as always, flawless. He conducts his four-man, backstage combo on guitar, bass, keyboard and percussion with skill and understatement. Ensemble member Darian Tene choreographs with all the right Motown moves, especially the three street urchins.
Grant Sabin’s fluid scenic design (special kudos for the shop’s transformation from dowdy to dressy), Izumi Inaba’s colorful, period-perfect costumes and Heather Gilbert’s sharp lighting all add additional layers of fun to this production. Perhaps the most impressive technical work comes from Sarah E. Ross, with her series of Audrey II puppets, that convince us that the diabolical plant is actually growing larger with each scene. And, doing double duty as auxiliary percussionist, Matthew Sitz brings Ms. Ross’ artistry to life as puppeteer for this frighteningly funny plant from outer space.
It’s been quite a while since Chicago enjoyed a production of Menken and Ashman’s captivating, clever, musical science fiction satire. It was worth the wait. This exciting, creatively directed production is exceptional. It features some of Chicago’s finest talent performing at the top of their game. In addition to an entertaining script and a musical score that’s unforgettable, this musical will leave audiences with four words of warning: Don’t Feed the Plant!
American Blues Theater presents “Little Shop of Horrors” through June 26 by at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago. More information and tickets ($29 – $39) are available by calling (773) 404-7336 or online here. Additional reviews by Colin Douglas may be read at theatreinchicago.com.