Little Shop of Horrors (Tantrum Theater – Dublin, OH)


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. 

Photo: Daniel Rader – Jhardon Dishon Milton (Seymour)

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.

Photo: Daniel Rader – (left to right) Sara Reinecke (Audrey), Colin Cardille (customer), Brandon Whitehead (Mushnik), and Jhardon Dishon Milton (Seymour)

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.

Photo: Daniel Rader – (left to right) Brandon Whitehead (Mushnik), Kelsey Rodriguez (Ronnette), Kristin Yates (Crystal), Sana Selemon (Chiffon), and Jhardon Dishon Milton (Seymour)

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.

Photo: Chuck Pennington III – Set Design: C. David Russell

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…

Photo: Daniel Rader – (left to right) Kristin Yates (Crystal), Sana Selemon (Chiffon), Kelsey Rodriguez (Ronnette), and Jhardon Dishon Milton (Seymour)

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/

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Die, Mommie, Die! (Short North Stage – Columbus, OH)

“It should all be bigger than life,” Bette Davis once said about acting and Hollywood; the “bigger than life” description certainly applies to Short North Stage’s production of Charles Busch’s Die, Mommie, Die!, a rollicking homage to the thrillers of the sixties starring female stars of yesteryear. Like most of Busch’s works, this one also features a strong leading woman played by a man in drag; as he did in The Divine Sister in 2014 and Psycho Beach Party in 2015 (both at Short North Stage), Doug Joseph dons drag once again to hilarious effect as Angela Arden, the devilish woman at the heart of this show.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – Doug Joseph (Angela)
 

Die, Mommie, Die! premiered in Los Angeles in 1999, was adapted into a film in 2003, and then opened off-Broadway for a limited run in 2007, all starring Charles Busch as Angela Arden. You see, Angela is a former musical star who is down on her luck; ever since her sister Barbara’s suicide fifteen years earlier, her career has floundered, her marriage to film producer Sol Sussman has filled with acrimony, her daughter Edith has grown to hate her, and her illicit affairs have become a matter of public record. Seeking the help of her latest conquest, well endowed TV actor Tony Parker, Angela is determined to make a comeback, and she isn’t above murdering anyone who stands in her way.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – (left to right) Ralph E. Scott (Sol) and Doug Joseph (Angela)
 
Doug Joseph’s starring turn as Angela Arden has more heart than one might expect, and he brings a likability to the part that works to his advantage; the audience (myself included) forgives Mr. Joseph for most anything, including murder, adultery, and an outlandish wardrobe (his costume changes are greeted with applause). When Mr. Joseph isn’t on the stage, his character is still the center of attention, and the audience is held in suspense awaiting his return. His facial straps (used by the likes of Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, and Lana Turner in the days before Botox and plastic surgery) are slightly visible below his ears, disappearing under his wig, a funny touch to those of us in the know to discover.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – (left to right) Nick Lingnofski (Tony) and Doug Joseph (Angela)
 
Mr. Joseph is surrounded by some very talented scene-stealers, including Ralph E. Scott as husband Sol Sussman; Josie Merkle as Bootsie, the maid; and Nick Lingnofski as boyfriend Tony Parker. Mr. Scott has a grimace and bird-like squeal (representing his character’s chronic constipation) that never fails to elicit laughter. Ms. Merkle is spry and pushy as the maid secretly in love with the man of the house, and who has more than Lysol in her bag of tricks. Mr. Lingnofski is perhaps the biggest threat as he prances around and sneers, performing with a kind of direct intensity that is perfect in keeping with the mood while also being oddly sexy. The cast is rounded out by the capable Erin Mellon as daughter Ethel, who is queasingly solicitous with her father Sol, jumping into his arms and humping him as he arrives in the doorway, and who has probably the best line in the play while canoodling with Mr. Lingnofski: “I will pet your dingle, but I intend to remain intact!” Johnny Robison is also on hand as Lance, Angela’s gay, idiot son.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – (left to right) Johnny Robison (Lance) and Erin Mellon (Ethel)
 
Director Edward Carignan certainly seems to understand the inherent comedy of this material and is adept at allowing it to breathe; a lesser director would’ve pushed things too far into forceful farce, limiting its audience to only the gay cognescenti. What’s great about this production is that it can be enjoyed by anyone open for some raunchy fun, no prior knowledge of Joan Crawford or Bette Davis required. Mr. Carignan is also responsible for Angela’s form-fitting dresses (my favorite is a red number that looks like a ladybug) and one notably shiny muumuu with a matching headscarf.

 

Set Design: Bill Pierson
 
Bill Pierson’s set replicates a living room circa 1967 in Hollywood as if it has remained shrinkwrapped and forgotten – until now. From the vintage spiked clock to the gray brick and stone-patterned walls and the turntable cabinet unit, everything looks a little pre-“The Brady Bunch,” which is exactly correct. There is even a small reel-to-reel deck used to record Angela’s big confession about her past, though Erin Mellon proudly holds up an empty reel as being the recording in question. It’s a small but notable flaw when so much of the set and props are just right.

Rob Kuhn’s lighting is striking, most notably during Angela’s LSD trip when rotating bold hues often separate the actors from the background, and his technical direction involving the many sound effects and music cues are perfectly timed. Along with the rather elaborate set and limited space in The Green Room, Die, Mommie, Die! feels like a special event, the stadium seating so close to the action that there is no bad seat. There is a support beam in the middle of the viewing area, but even it didn’t prove to be a problem as it was easy to see past from where we were seated.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – (left to right) Doug Joseph (Angela) and Erin Mellon (Edith)
 

Die, Mommie, Die! is just the kind of irreverent, hilarious play that is the perfect counterpoint to anyone who thinks seeing plays is boring or corny; this is two hours of in-your-face fun, sometimes so “wrong” that I found myself laughing and looking away in embarrassment. One doesn’t have to be familiar with films like Dead Ringer (1964) or The Big Cube (1969), both of which are obvious inspirations, for Die, Mommie, Die! to be wildly entertaining, as this production stands firm and proud in flashy red pumps.

***/ out of ****

Die, Mommie, Die! continues through to February 21st in The Green Room at The Garden Theatre located at 1187 North High Street in downtown Columbus, and more information can be found at http://www.shortnorthstage.org/calendar/v/468