By Barry Reszel
There’s but a single flaw in Mercury Theater Chicago’s resplendent production of musical patrons’ favorite, Little Shop of Horrors.
Not of the actors. Not of the musicians. Just of the production. Because Chicagoland theatregoers were treated to an equally wonderful rendition of the same show less than five months ago—up the road a piece at Drury Lane in Oakbrook Terrace.
It seems only fair to point this out after taking Drury Lane’s current production of Mamma Mia! to task with a “Here we go again” headline just a few weeks back. And for God’s sake, Chicagoland has two million dollars worth of quartets playing simultaneously at Lincolnshire’s Marriott and Munster, IN’s Theatre at the Center. (Nice licensing agreements there, Theatrical Rights Worldwide.)
While the converted movie house that is Mercury provides a more intimate experience than the large, suburban, regional companies, the truly splendid work of lead creatives L. Walter Stearns and Engene Dizon puts Mercury’s schedule up against Drury Lane, Marriott, Paramount and TATC (and let’s add Porchlight) as patrons plan their entertainment calendars. These two talents will understand this as the true compliment it is. But it also means they get grouped into the creatives who are hereby implored to show a little more respect to audience members by keeping tabs on what their “friendly competition” is doing. Because any musical theatre patron in greater Chicagoland worth his or her salt is more than willing to commute up to an hour for a fine evening’s entertainment.
So how about it, Equity regional gem creative teams? What say you agree to a three-year hold on titles produced by any of your six companies before another one gives it its own adaptation? Maybe make it part of an audience bill of rights. (Can we add asking patrons to turn off cell phones instead of simply “silencing” them?) Just a thought.
And now with single flaw duly addressed, let’s look at highlights of Mercury’s Little Shop…—which is to say, the while frigging thing.
Set in an indistinct city at a time in the near future is the preposterous story of skid row of florist, Mr. Mushnik, and his employees, the dweeby Seymour and insecure beauty Audrey. Love interest, masochistic dentist/boyfriend, total eclipse of the sun, foliage with a penchant for human blood…let’s just say one thing leads to another and, if interested, the full plot summary and production history of the 1982 musical based on the 1960 American comedy film directed by Roger Corman may be read here. It’s fun. It’s goofy. And the songbook from Alan Menken (music) and Howard Ashman (lyrics) (Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, and many more) is truly fabulous.
Two of the hallmarks, which is to say, if these two songs aren’t sung extraordinarily well, the production will noticeably suffer, are the Audrey ballad “Somewhere That’s Green” and the Audrey/Seymour duet “Suddenly Seymour.” At Mercury, Dana Tretta as Audrey and Christopher Kale Jones as Seymour absolutely deliver. In addition to the leads’ soaring vocals, Tretta’s monologue leading into “Somewhere That’s Green” is the stuff of a master class in acting. Her timing and cadence are memorably noteworthy…like, talk about it on the car ride home memorable noteworthiness.
Like the ensemble seen at Drury last fall, doo-wop girls Nicole Lambert (Crystal), Adhana Reid (Ronnette) and Shantel Cribbs (Chiffon) set the production’s high quality standard with their opening song triumvirate of “Little Shop,” “Skid Row (Downtown)” and “Da-Doo” and don’t rest until final bows. With their tight harmonies, these three talented ladies also help to show off the very best of Serena Sandoval‘s costumes and Christopher Chase Carter‘s choreography.
Director Stearns milks every ounce of talent from his cast, nowhere better seen than in the scene-stealing comedy of Tommy Novak as Mushnik. It’s heartening to see the asterisk in the program next to Novak’s name, indicating Equity union status, after seeing him perform in many comedic roles on area stages (his Mr. Braithwaite, the ballet class accompanist, in Porchlight’s Billy Elliot is especially memorable). Novak’s part in “Mushnik and Son” rivals David Sajewich‘s “Be a Dentist” for the funniest moment of a very funny show. Though seeing Sajewich make the necessarily quick costume changes to play marketing opportunists of all looks is hilarious, too.
Sound plaudits go to Dizon’s wonderful five-person band, with him on keyboards. Jonah Winston as the glorious bass voice of Audrey II (he really gets his due in the finale) and puppeteer Matthew Sitz are the production’s unseen (until the end) heroes. Other backstage kudos not previously mentioned belong to Alan Donahue‘s professional set and Kevin Barthel‘s wigs (particularly those of Crystal, Ronnette and Chiffon).
In all, this is another impeccable production of many patrons’ favorite guilty pleasure of a show. For those who missed Drury Lane’s equally terrific version last fall, there’s no reason to skip this one. Because here’s hoping it won’t be on another Equity regional stage for at least three years.
Mercury Theater Chicago presents “Little Shop of Horrors” through April 28 at 3745 N. Southport Avenue, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.