Guest Review by Robert Neblett
For a B-movie science fiction musical comedy about a bloodthirsty man-eating plant from outer space that threatens to take over the Earth, WaterTower Theatre’s current production of Little Shop of Horrors offers relatively little bite.
Little Shop of Horrors is based upon a low-budget 1960 cult film by Roger Corman that (in)famously features a young Jack Nicholson in one of his first film roles, as a masochistic dental patient. With an infectious doo-wop inspired score by Alan Menken and wickedly clever book and lyrics by Howard Ashman, the 1982 Off-Broadway hit soon catapulted its creators into the limelight as the musical team that would revive Disney’s feature-length animated films in the late 1980s and 1990s (The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin). In 1986, Frank Oz transferred the musical to the silver screen, creating a film that celebrated the show’s overt theatricality and self-referential social commentary about the plastic “family values” of post-WWII America.
The plot concerns Seymour, a young flower shop worker with a dead-end job and even more dead-end life who discovers a “strange and interesting plant” that reverses his fate, catapulting him to national celebrity status. The only catch is that he must feed the alien plant human blood. As he slides into the depths of moral corruption, his only bright spot is his love for the ditzy Audrey, a fellow florist who has the unfortunate habit of dating abusive men. What emerges from amidst all of this cock-eyed carnage is a surprisingly tender love story tinged with tragedy.
As directed by Amy Anders Corcoran, WaterTower’s production suffers from a major case of the blands. I am still stymied by the tepid, hesitant tone of the performance I saw on opening night. Maybe it was under-rehearsed, maybe there were some major last minute changes, but the untidy seams showed throughout. Because it showed no spark of imagination of any kind, what I am left with is the suspicion that the director simply did not understand this show, from the ground up. She fills the musical numbers with uninspired, extremely limited choreography that barely reaches beyond the novice level of difficulty of basic “step-ball change.” The characters who lose the most impact from this deficiency are the Urchins (Kristen Bond, Janelle Gray, and Traci Lee), a soulful street corner trio reminiscent of The Supremes, The Shirelles, and The Chantels. They serve as the musical’s Greek chorus, providing running commentary on the action. Directed to do nothing but sit on the fire escape until it’s time for their next number, these three young talents are wasted, given the fact that their characters have glorious potential for so much ‘tude and audience appeal. This is not helped by the fact that Bond’s off-key singing, which thankfully seemed less prominent in the second act, often hinders the gorgeous close harmonies of Gray and Lee.
It also appears that Corcoran has attempted to challenge the standard portrayals of Little Shop’s downtrodden characters by reversing the qualities that make them who they are. As an experiment in re-imagining, this fails miserably. In WaterTower’s production: bimbo Audrey (Mary Gilbraeth Grim, who appears to be a last-minute cast replacement) suffers from excessive modesty; Mushnik (Randy Pearlman) needs a healthy boost of Yiddish chutzpah; and most damningly, the sleazy Orin Scrivello (Alex Organ), the grand-standing, sadistic dentist-biker, is a fairly charismatic, regular guy who just happens to beat his girlfriend.
There are two major exceptions to this production’s lack of inspiration: Jason Kennedy as Seymour and the brilliant scenic design by Christopher Pickart. By far the strongest performance in the cast, Kennedy not only acts the role of Seymour Krelborn with nebbish aplomb but also sings the role beautifully. Because of his clear, confident vocals, we are always aware that there is something more beneath his rumpled, geeky exterior. It’s easy to cheer him on throughout the production, even when his torso seems to be at odds with his hips and legs as he dances (all done with strong intention and humor). Pickart’s scenery is whimsical, inventive, and professionally realized. Skid Row comes to rusty life onstage and features a transforming flower shop façade that will surprise and delight audience members throughout the course of the performance.
To return to Organ’s portrayal of Orin for a moment, I can’t wholly fault the actor for many of the hollow choices that plague his characterization, based upon the consistently backwards tone of his cast-mates’ portrayals. Organ is an excellent performer whose other recent work around the DFW area repeatedly impresses. He appears to struggle with embracing the direction he is given to subvert Dr. Scrivello’s villainous qualities, which undercuts the script as well as his fine acting instincts. He exhibits no such difficulty in depicting all the hilarious quick-change cameo bit roles that fill out the remainder of the cast.
Costumes by the talented Aaron Patrick Turner are a mixed bag, often eschewing the stylized tone of the period and the text’s unique style in favor of muted colors and off-the-mark realism. In fact, one of Audrey’s biggest jokes of the evening falls flat because her outfits never quite reach the nadir of trashy sexuality the script calls for. While the majority of the costumes are fairly nondescript and leave little impression, the finale’s ensembles sadly come across as an afterthought. Turner is one of the region’s most skilled, imaginative designers; here his creative instincts seem thwarted by misdirection.
Little Shop is a dark comedy; heck, it even has the word “Horrors” in the title. Someone please send the memo to director Amy Anders Corcoran, who seems to have inexplicably “turned off the dark,” to quote the subtitle of a recent Broadway fiasco. Corcoran opened a vein and drained the sinister glee out of every dark corner of this production, exposing it to harsh sunlight where it withers and dies. Rather than feeling like a campy, seedy nightmare straight out of the John Waters’ school, this production feels like it strives to be the wholesome equivalent of television shows like “Father Knows Best” that the authors ironically skewer in Audrey’s song “Somewhere That’s Green.”
In the end, what this production of Little Shop of Horrors lacks is heart. Anemic and functional, it may please WaterTower’s audiences, but it doesn’t give them the production they deserve of a funny, ominous, surprisingly romantic musical with one of the best scores of the 1980s.
NOTE: In the spirit of full disclosure Chris Pickart was one of the resident scenic designers at Washington University in St. Louis during my PhD studies there, so we do have a prior relationship as colleagues. The work he has done for WaterTower during the past few seasons is a welcome addition to the local theatre community, and I hope that other companies seek out professional designers of his caliber for their productions.
Photos: Mark Oristano