Tell me if this sounds familiar. There’s this thing in the middle of the room, and it’s growing. In fact, it’s consuming everything in sight. First it’s the size of a beaver, then of a Doberman Pinscher, and finally the size of a Volkswagen. And there’s this nervous, nerdy, nebbishy little guy who keeps feeding it. He knows it’s wrong to feed the thing but he does it anyway, because it is making him famous and popular and if he doesn’t keep feeding it, he won’t be famous and popular any more.
Hah! Bet you thought I was talking about the deficit and Congress! But I’m not, I’m talking about that amiable minor classic, Little Shop of Horrors, now getting a tub-thumpingly good workout at the Children’s Theatre of Annapolis, courtesy of Infinity Theatre Company.
Little Shop, as you doubtlessly recall, is the story of poor Seymour Krelborn (Topher Nuccio), an orphan who lives out his days as a minion in the Skid Row Flower Shop, owned by the choleric Mr. Mushnik (Ira Denmark). Seymour is in love with his co-worker, the divine Audrey (the divine Stacie Bono), but she is stuck on Orin (Eric William Whitehead), the insane dentist who is her abusive boyfriend.
Things are not going so well for Seymour. He is the penultimate nerd, and also the ultimate nerd, balding, in glasses (hey! wait!) and thus seemingly doomed in his romantic ambitions. Plus, for some reason, they’re just not selling flowers on Skid Row. But at the darkest moment (so far) Seymour comes up with a means to redemption: a strange and interesting plant, seemingly created out of nothing during a total eclipse of the Sun.
The plant is more interesting than Seymour knows. It grows when it feeds on blood – human blood, and it grows even better if the human is still attached. It grows like – well, you know what it grows like. It talks. It sounds like The Big Bopper (or: the cannon-voiced Lamont Whitaker). It moves around (courtesy of master puppeteer John L. Ettinger, who makes an acceptable cameo appearance as a skid row drunk as well).
Well, you can pretty much guess the rest of the story – or not, it really doesn’t matter. What Little Shop of Horrors really is, is an excuse to hear all the cool Ashman-Menken musical numbers in the song list, written in the operatic style of late-fifties rock and belted out by Infinity’s smooth cast behind a tight band (the estimatable Mary Sugar, conductor; music direction by Denise Puricelli).
If the original Roger Corman1960 movie which inspired Little Shop was tongue-in-cheek (having Mrs. Shiva be the customer who buys the floral funeral arrangements is a nice touch), Howard Ashman’s book is tongue-in-ear. Cheerfully preposterous things occur with alarming regularity, punctuated by Ashman’s disarmingly charming lyrics. (“I thrill when I drill a bicuspid,” Orin sings, “It’s swell though they tell me I’m mal-adjusted.”)
Infinity’s principals by and large give a good account of themselves. Mushnik is kind of a thankless role, in that he appears designed primarily as a plot device rather than an organic character, but Denmark gives him a sort of gritty, highly ethnic, charm. Bono nails the essential Betty Boopness of Audrey, a prototypical 1950s movie heroine – delectable, and dumber than a toaster. Nuccio, who has a great voice, pulls off the difficult task of making Seymour be a wiener, yet strong enough to feed people to the plants and appealing enough to be the protagonist.
On the other hand, I didn’t much like Whitehead, who seems to lack the horrible manic joy which characterizes the brutal dentist. (Steve Martin in the movie musical version of the show may have spoiled the role for me; or perhaps Jack Nicholson in the Corman original). Whitehead plays several other roles, but does not, in my view, achieve much character-from-character separation in them.
But for my money the best part of this fine show is the chorus. Chiffon, Crystal and Ronnette (Martina Sykes, Ariana Scoggins and Ardale Shepherd, respectively) sing in the style of the 60s girl groups – an anachronism, and a welcome one – with such force and pizzazz that if you’re not careful you’ll find yourself thinking Lyndon Johnson is the President, and wondering about your student deferment. Their voices (especially Scoggins’) are powerful and beautiful, and their harmonies are so laser-precise that they could be used to do eye surgery.
Director Tina Marie Casamento and Choreographer Erin Denman move the cast gracefully, elegantly and with dispatch; the entire production, including the intermission, clocks in at two hours on the nose. I recommend that we send them about fifty miles southwest, to take over that other production with the big growing all-consuming thing. The non-musical. You know the one I mean.
Little Shop of Horrors
Book and lyrics by Howard Ashman
Music by Alan Menken
Based on a film by Roger Corman (Charles Griffith, Screenplay)
Directed by Tina Marie Casamento
Produced by Infinity Theatre Company
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Two hours with one intermission