This family’s twelve-year-old daughter found Little Shop of Horrors to be funny, silly, and wholly enjoyable, further cementing her desire to be onstage as much and as often as possible in the future.
Little Shop of Horrors. Book and lyrics by Howard Ashman. Music by Alan Menken. Directed and choreographed by Russell Garrett. Musical direction by Todd C. Gordon. Presented by the New Repertory Theatre at the Arsenal Center for the Arts, Watertown, MA, through May 27.
By Hugo Burnham
The vibrantly entertaining production of Little Shop of Horrors at New Rep comes with a history. It began as a 1960, low-budget flick produced by Roger Corman, completed at the last minute to make it under the wire of approaching SAG rules (which would have paid the actors residuals, damn it). The film was subsequently mashed up in 1982 by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken into a stage musical so far off-Broadway in New York City you’d need to hail a cab. Yet it was a hit, earning money and awards left, right, and center, in the process becoming the highest-grossing off-Broadway musical ever during the five years it ran singing, dancing, joking, and screaming into the night. A movie followed. Excuse me, another movie followed—this time in color and kicking off a tradition of the creative triangular zigzag from screen to stage to screen since traveled by Hairspray and The Producers.
The story echoes many other familiar tales, chock-a-block with touchstone moments from (and with sly nods and winks to) classic theater, rock ’n’ roll, and real horror films. Almost everyone knows the story of the Skid Row florist who finds a strange pot plant (plant in a pot, excuse me—it is a family show) and nurtures it to rude health. The set-up and twists of the plot’s crazy-kids love story aren’t surprising either. Meek boy loves pretty girl who dates bad boy. Who beats her. Meek boy beats out bad boy (well, feeds him to bloodthirsty, alien plant) and eventually wins hand of pretty girl . . . before said hand, along with arm, legs, feet, pretty, pretty head, and torso all ultimately end up back with bad boy. In the plant. Along with his employer/adopted father. And everyone singing as they go down the hatch. Not quite Romeo and Juliet but a recognizable variation on the art house love-and-death motif.
Some critics have described the show as morbid, yet it has a healthy and wholesome passion about it despite the murderous duo of scheming plant Audrey II and nerdy, adopted son Seymour, who become blood brothers in mayhem and song. Shakespeare might have written this story with an eye on pleasing the groundlings, and it is rather obvious that Ashman had seen, read, and deeply dug at least Macbeth, whose twist and turns of deceit and bloodletting are replayed here. Little Shop of Horror‘s Greek Chorus of bouncy Motown girls Chiffon, Crystal, and Ronette, played with attractive fabulousness by Jennifer Fogerty, Ceit McCaleb Zweil, and (the very) Lovely Hoffman, could have been named Hubble-Bubble, Toil, and Trouble.
Bill Mootos’s The Dentist is a familiar stage villain who could have easily worn a black hat and cape in place of his rocker’s motorcycle leathers. He was especially villainous to those in the audience old enough to sit in any dentist’s chair any time before 1965. While it can be hard for a stage actor to make an audience forget their film counterparts, both sexy, squeaky Susan Molloy as Audrey and Blake Pfeil as the mentally tortured Seymour push the screen versions of their characters right out of mind. This is harder for whoever plays Seymour, with the annoying Rick Moranis having set a high bar for the put-upon puppet (irony alert) of the blood-thirsty alien plant at the heart of the story. Audrey II (our growing, green alien) is marvelous, especially at his gurgling, beseeching largest. “Feed me!” could and should become an audience shout-out, like O. P. (Original Puppet) Mr. Punch’s “That’s the way to do it!” or any of The Rocky Horror Show lines seared into the hearts of Frank ’n’ furter’s fanboys and girls the world over. Puppeteer Timothy P. Hoover is masterful, and Peter S. Adams voices Audrey II with vigor and conviction, if you know what an alien plant really sounds like, as some of us do.
The show has been compared to other plays, musicals, and movies, but the most obvious comparison is to the aforementioned Rocky Horror Show/Rocky Horror Picture Show: a twisted, naughty musical created at London’s Kings Road Theatre, even further away from the West End than “off Broadway” ever was, that also became a movie and continues to run everywhere as schlocky musical theater. Both pieces have had long, long lives onstage and on screen. Both are constantly winking at the audience members and grasping with glee at cultural touchstones of the fifties and sixties, not least the pop music of those decades. Both also have aliens from outer space as protagonists, trying desperately to take over Earth one virgin or dead body at a time.
With fewer bare breasts and being less giggly-gross, Little Shop of Horrors has greater family appeal. This family’s twelve-year-old daughter has seen and loved both shows. She found Little Shop of Horrors to be funny, silly, and wholly enjoyable, further cementing her desire to be onstage as much and as often as possible in the future. Drawn to the music of her parents’ past, she loved the spectacle of cartoonish—but not over-acted—characters dashing and dancing around the well-designed New Rep stage set. The sets switch from exterior Skid Row to interior flower shop or dentist’s office with ease and credibility.
The only thing out of sight was the band. This is rock ’n’ roll, surely they could have been somewhere in view—up on the New York City skyline, perhaps, or maybe dressed as the Skid Row bums who sing, wander about, and lie on the ground in the opening scene. Because we couldn’t see the musicians, the music almost sounded canned. This did not hamper the production’s fun much, but the show would have been even bigger and bolder with the band as part of the stage action.
But Audrey II drew all eyes, growing with each scene into an iconic monster. There must be a warehouse somewhere full of Audrey IIs, traveling around the country from stage to stage. Eating people. We discovered after the show that there indeed is, and a healthy market among theaters for the hungry plants, each new stage crew adding paint and personality. But not getting too close.