Before the days when corporate businessmen disguised as producers injected millions into musical versions of any film that achieved a modicum of success, there were people like composer Alan Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman. In 1982, they decided to turn a tiny, B-grade cult film into a rock musical. Little Shop of Horrors became an immediate smash. But even as it achieved nationwide success, book writer/play director Ashman refused to stage the show on Broadway—eliminating it from Tony consideration—because the integrity of the production relied on an intimate, modest venue. A venue just like STAGES, in fact.
In its rinky-dink production, directed by Elizabeth Serra and choreographed by Jon Kim, STAGES gives us the very best of Little Shop kitsch and ghetto fun. The story of a hapless nerd who discovers a blood-sucking plant from outer space and feeds it undesirable humans is standard Charles B. Griffith kookiness (he wrote director Roger Corman's original 1960 film, as well as Death Race 2000), but silly plots are soon forgotten once the cast starts be-bopping and torch-song singing, proving once again that character and lyrics are king.
It isn't long before we fall head over high heels for sweet, airy Audrey (Nicole Dominguez), a stacked kewpie doll who takes a constant pummeling from her sadistic, dentist boyfriend, Orin (David Chorley). Dominguez looks hot enough in her red hair, pumps and spandex minis and yet just plain enough to make us believe she is the unwitting sex trophy on the decrepit Skid Row. Pulling off the passionate, gorgeous ballad "Suddenly, Seymour" is no small feat, and Dominguez nails it. As the hideously deranged dentist (and various other insane characters) Chorley is a riot, his twitches and intonations exaggerated with expert flair. Audrey's other suitor is her co-worker at Mushnik's Florist, Seymour (Mike Martin), a geeky orphan who pines for her love as he sweeps up the shop each night. Martin offers just the right amount of innocent sincerity and moronic logic to put us on his side, even when he tricks his boss, Mr. Mushnik (Bruce Schechter), into crawling into the death jaws of the giant, maniacal plant, Audrey II. Schechter delivers a solid "take my wife, please" performance apropos for the harmlessly stereotypical Jewish stress case.
Little Shop of Horrors at STAGEStheatre, www.stagesoc.org. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. Through July 24. $20-$25.
The surrounding vagrants and loose women include a mini girl-group throwback to the Supremes—Ronnette (Jennifer Moraca), Chiffon (Lara Avengoza) and Crystal (Tiffany Polite)—a homeless mother toting a baby (Amber Williams-Morales) and two drunks (John Schwendinger and Adam Poynter, who also serve as puppeteers for the carnivorous Audrey II). Moraca, Avengoza and Polite are much like a raucous Antigone's Chorus, and their comedic jabs, physicality and top-notch vocalizations keep the framework of the show together; Williams-Morales is a standout in her brief solo during "Skid Row" and when Audrey II, not yet grown to the rafters, tries to swallow her baby. Probably one of the hardest props to work with is a huge, man-eating plant, and kudos to Schwendinger and Poynter for their almost-spot-on puppeteering, which will certainly cost them each a good 10 pounds of sweat by the end of the run. Eulis Kay as the soulful, sassy voice of Audrey II has the perfect groovy pipes for the Motown songs and synchs up with the puppeteering almost seamlessly.
Director Serra was fairly ambitious to choose this show and, with set designer Jon Gaw, found a way to incorporate three settings and a mega monster within the tight venue to great effect. The only hiccup in the show was that the music was often too loud, drowning out some of the funnier, subtler lyrics from the un-miked actors. Fortunately, most of the cast could rise above the heavy riffs and orchestration. But regardless of any bumps or any alternative types who take issue with indie theaters staging mainstream fare, it's important to remember why this show still works. It's the same reason the young man sitting next to me wearing a sports jersey and gold chains (not the usual attire of a sappy musical lover) actually knew some of the lyrics and even sang them under his breath. That's what happens when you have clever writing and truly expositional songwriting, and you always give actors, no matter how small the part, something worthy to do. The cast and crew of this production certainly did it—and how.
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This review appeared in print as "Little Shop Rocks! STAGEStheatre's ghetto musical is a riotous romp."