18 Jul KSPN: Review: Theatre Aspen’s ‘Little Shop’ is bloody good fun
Inspired by a cult film made in 1960, “Little Shop of Horrors” opened Off-Off-Broadway in 1982 with book and lyrics by Howard Ashman and music by Alan Menken (of Disney fame). The production soon moved to the Orpheum Theatre where it ran for five years, winning a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Musical.
Theatre Aspen’s production, with direction and choreography by Mark Martino and Elise Kinnon, revels in the kitschy pleasures of an over-the-top horror story — in this case featuring an unlikely romance, a sadistic dentist, and a bloodthirsty plant. Think absurdist science fiction served up with a self-aware wink.
The band, conducted by Eric Alsford, grabs the audience by the jugular with the first downbeat, and a powerhouse girl group opens the show with big voices and even bigger bouffant hairdos. Rosharra Francis as Ronnette, Alisha Jury as Chiffon and Galyana Castillo as a standout Crystal move the story along with energetic swag, commenting on the action in tight, three-part harmony like a Greek chorus with attitude.
The scenic design by Markas Henry is suitably minimal with grubby details that evoke a downtown vibe. Although the limited square-footage of the flower shop sometimes feels restrictive, the ensemble manages to navigate the close quarters admirably.
In the first company number, “Skid Row,” residents of the downtrodden neighborhood describe the everyday horrors of living in a cycle of poverty. Systematically drained of their lifeblood by “the powers that have always been,” they would do just about anything to “bid the gutter farewell.”
A glimmer of hope comes to orphaned floral assistant Seymour Krelborn when a plant he bought for next to nothing proves to be more than he bargained for. Sure, it needs human blood to thrive. But it also drives business into his beleaguered workplace, Mushnik’s Flower Shop, which means Seymour and the woman of his dreams, Audrey (for whom the plant is named), can remain gainfully employed.
Played with admirable pluck and sensitivity by Julie Kavanaugh, Audrey is a me-too-era feminist’s nightmare. Convinced she deserves no better than her abusive boyfriend, Orin Scrivello, D.D.S. (conveyed with plenty of smarmy, back-handed brutality by Tony Roach), she still dreams of living with a good man like Seymour in a tract house “Somewhere That’s Green.” Kavanaugh’s rendition of the signature song juxtaposes a longing for luxuries (including plastic furniture covers) with an authentic sense of yearning that gives her Audrey a poignant edge.
Ray DeMattis, as Mr. Mushnik, offers a convincing portrayal of a time-worn, pseudo-father figure who manages to be both conniving and endearing, even as he treats his hapless employees “like dirt.” Scheming to cash in on the success of his shop boy’s wonder-plant, he offers Seymour a business deal disguised as an adoption in the witty “Mushnik and Son.”
Seymour, played with quirky innocence by Jordan Grubb, delivers a performance marked by natural, comedic physicality. Determined to win Audrey’s affection, our would-be hero slides down a slippery slope as he struggles to keep the insatiable, and highly profitable, Audrey II satisfied without abandoning his ethics.
Through an accident of convenience Seymour is able to assuage Audrey II’s bloodlust for the short term, and the phones in Mushnik’s flower shop start to jangle off the hook in the cleverly orchestrated “Call Back in the Morning.” But Seymour’s newfound fame and fortune as a horticulturist come at a high human cost. When he’s forced to choose between his carnivorous plant and his flesh-and-blood friends, all hell breaks loose in a final scene that pulls out all the horror-trope stops.
One unique challenge of mounting this show in any venue is figuring out how to embody the multiple puppet versions of Audrey II as she grows into her full glory onstage. Theatre Aspen’s team employs all the right tricks to achieve the desired effect. Travis Anderson exhibits near-Herculean strength and endurance in lifting, shifting and manipulating Audrey II’s unwieldy roots and gaping maw, while Dion Grier provides her with a resonant, nuanced voice that combines calculated menace with casual amorality in the crowd-pleasing “Feed Me.”
From start to finish Theatre Aspen brings the campy fun of the original “Little Shop of Horrors” to the stage in a high-energy production that prompted an enthusiastic standing ovation from the opening night audience.