Inspiration can sometimes come from the most innocuous material. I’m sure schlock film director Roger Corman never dreamed his 1960 grade-Z, low-budget, black and white wonder The Little Shop of Horrors would be transformed into a successful off-Broadway musical, be turned back into a film, and still be performed over thirty years later all across the country. Tantrum Theater, a new theatre company with ties to Ohio University in Athens as well as the City of Dublin, is now presenting Little Shop of Horrors as their premiere production in the Abbey Theater within the Dublin Community Recreation Center (I had to use the GPS on my phone to find it). This was my first experience at the facility; it looks state-of-the-art and proves to be a perfect fit for this irreverent dark comedy of a musical about love, fame, and a singing carnivorous plant.
Little Shop of Horrors premiered off-Broadway in 1982 and launched the careers of lyric and book writer Howard Ashman and composer Alan Menken, the team who went on to write the scores to Disney’s The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. The show ran for over five years, was adapted into a hit 1986 film, and finally premiered on Broadway in 2003. The action centers around Mushnik’s Skid Row Florists, a struggling shop in a slummy area where Seymour Krelborn, a rather nerdy guy, works alongside blonde bombshell Audrey. All of their fortunes change when Seymour discovers a “strange and unusual” plant that brings fame and fortune to him and the shop. The catch? The plant needs warm, fresh blood to thrive, and Seymour is faced with the ethical dilemma of finding the plant (whom he names Audrey II) dinner in the form of less than savory people that the plant reasons “deserve to die” anyway. The score is peppered with catchy songs like “Suddenly Seymour,” “Downtown,” and “Somewhere That’s Green,” and the story is written in a tongue-in-cheek style. Director Daniel C. Dennis guides this production while maintaining a light touch, possessing an obvious affection for the characters and the time period that shows in the joyful pep in many of the performances and the impressive use of color in the design concept.
Standouts in the cast are Jhardon Dishon Milton as Seymour, still playing the geek card but with a lot of heart; Sara Reinecke as Audrey, playing her as more than just a squeaky-voiced ditz; Brandon Whitehead as Mushnik, just right as the sneaky boss; Byron Glenn Willis sounds like he is having fun as the voice of Audrey II (though he sometimes has trouble finding his place in the music); Basil Harris is a riot as the evil dentist Orin, but he also plays a variety of other small roles (at times reminding me of Robin Williams with his timing and delivery); Kelsey Rodriguez sparkles in her solos as Ronnette, one of the three girls that comment on the action throughout the play; Jon Hoche brings personality to Audrey II as the lead puppeteer; and Colin Cardille has a memorable moment in a small part as a customer at the shop, his wide grin and impossibly genial manner fitting perfectly with the tone of the piece.
The most striking element of this production is the incredible set designed by C. David Russell, complete with a turntable to transition from being on the outside to the inside of Mushnik’s shop. There are signs and billboards overhead to denote the period, which is also aided by the limited black and white palette that extends to the costumes; bits of color begin to appear little by little as Audrey II grows, and the effect is most attractive and reminiscent of the use of color in the 1998 film Pleasantville. The band is conveniently housed on stage to the left within what appears to be a brownstone with open doors and windows.
With so much to recommend this piece, there are some notable deficiencies. There is a distinct lack of energy in some of the supporting players as they don’t always seem to be actively present and working to sell their parts. The tempo of the music is also much slower than I’m used to hearing with this score, though it seems to pick up the pace a bit after the intermission. Much of the choreography comes off as an afterthought and robotic as well. None of these problems keep the show from being diverting overall, but those familiar with the show will take note.
It’s funny how a familiar work of art (I’ve seen and listened to this show many times) can take on a different meaning depending on the context in which it is experienced. Just listen to the lyrics of “Don’t Feed the Plants” at the end of the show, with references to “unsuspecting jerks from Maine to California” being “sweet talked” into feeding the plants blood as they continue to grow. It isn’t hard for me to relate that to some of the rhetoric being spouted by politicians currently running for President, no matter which side of the aisle you may sit. The song now sounds to me like we shouldn’t give attention to anything that will ultimately be destructive, a lesson learned too late by the characters in the show (let’s hope we as a country are more fortunate come election time). Ah, but I digress…
Little Shop of Horrors is an auspicious debut production for Tantrum Theater. If the production values for this show are any indication, they are a serious new contender in the area. While I may take issue with a few of the performances and the pace of the music, this is a very enjoyable production overall. The set is top notch, the voices are all strong, and the humor all comes across. The group of people I attended with all left impressed and looking forward to Tantrum’s next production.
*** out of ****
Little Shop of Horrors continues through to June 25th in the Abbey Theater located within the Dublin Community Recreation Center at 5600 Post Road in Dublin (it’s a huge building with a large flag in front), and more information can be found at http://tantrumtheater.org/play/little-shop-of-horrors/