Chicago Theater Review: LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS (Theatre at the Center)

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by Dan Zeff on July 16, 2012

in Theater-Chicago,Theater-Regional

A SHOW WHICH PLANTS ITSELF IN YOUR MEMORY

Back in 1985, Bill Pullinsi staged a satirical musical called Little Shop of Horrors at his Candlelight Dinner Playhouse in Summit that was one of the joyous entertainments of the decade. Pullinsi is now the artistic director of Theatre at the Center, which is reviving the musical in Munster and it’s almost like the good old days of 1985. The revival doesn’t quite reach the high bar set by the Candlelight presentation, but it’s still plenty good enough to give audiences two hours of quality summertime pleasure.

Little Shop is based on a cheapie horror film directed by Roger Corman (reportedly filmed in three days in 1960). Corman has become a cult figure for his schlock B horror films of the 1950’s and 1960’s; the musical is an admiring spoof of his work. The spectator needn’t be acquainted with the Corman original or that whole genre of tacky horror films, but some familiarity would deepen the viewer’s appreciation of just how much creators Howard Ashman and Alan Menken accomplished with Ashman’s hip dialogue and lyrics combined with Menken’s delightful score.

Dan Zeff’s Stage and Cinema review of Theatre at the Center’s LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS

The musical, like the film, is a science fiction tale about a plant that needs human blood and flesh to grow. The setting is a florist shop on Skid Row in New York City, where proprietor Mr. Mushnik is ready the close the shop for lack of business when his nerdy young assistant Seymour Krelbourn brings in a mysterious little plant he found after a total eclipse. Seymour soon discovers that the plant survives on blood, with Seymour initially as the only donor. A passerby spots the plant through the shop window, admires its strangeness, and buys $100 worth of roses. The novelty of the plant rapidly turns Mushnik’s shop into a financial bonanza.

Dan Zeff’s Stage and Cinema review of Theatre at the Center’s LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS

Seymour loves Audrey, the shop’s ditsy salesgirl, from afar, and names the plant Audrey II in her honor. But there is a dark side to the shop’s success. Audrey II continues to grow and its demand for food is insatiable. A few pinpricks of blood from Seymour’s fingers no longer keep Audrey II happy. The last act of the show turns into a grotesque flesh eating fest that puts one in mind of Sweeney Todd.

The show is filled with in-jokes and nostalgia references (Levittown, Donna Reed, Jack Paar); the songs are witty and droll; and the visual humor is clever, especially as Audrey II grows larger and more gleefully menacing. The plant speaks in the voice of a jive inner city male to further embellish the show’s offbeat humor.

Dan Zeff’s Stage and Cinema review of Theatre at the Center’s LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS

A trio of black female do-wop singers, logically named Chiffon, Crystal, and Ronette, weave in and out of the action to provide vocal commentary like a Soul Train Greek chorus. The only major outside character is Audrey’s boyfriend, a sadistic leather-clad biker dentist named Orin (played in the movie by a then unknown Jack Nicholson) who achieves one of the funnier and more unlikely deaths in modern musical comedy history.

Pullinsi assigned Stacey Flaster to direct and choreograph the production and he chose wisely. There is a temptation to camp up the staging, but the characters need to play their roles straight, however laughable the audience finds them. Flaster maintains the performances on a mock-realistic level while keeping the action lively, with copious use of the theater aisles for entrances and exists. This isn’t really a dancing show but there is some choreographed movement that fits neatly into the comic ambience of the production.

Dan Zeff’s Stage and Cinema review of Theatre at the Center’s LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS

Jonathan Lee Cunningham makes an endearing Seymour, one of life’s wallflowers who yearns for Audrey; he endows Seymour with genuine emotion, converting a cartoon character into a real person without disturbing the comic surface of the show. Tiffany Trainer is properly vacuous as Audrey; while Hollis Resnik’s definitive performance at the Candlelight still lingers, the young lady certainly has a large voice; her passionate duet with Seymour in the second act was the musical highlight of the night.

Dan Zeff’s Stage and Cinema review of Theatre at the Center’s LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS

Rod Thomas plays the mad dentist and a bunch of cameo roles; Thomas is one of Chicagoland theater’s best song and dance men and has leading man looks, but broad comedy isn’t his strength and he doesn’t get maximum comic mileage out of the detestable Orin. I have nothing but admiration for the ladies in the do wop trio—Chadae McAlister as Chiffon, Reneisha Jenkins as Ronette, and Eva Ruwe (who has the makings of another Felicia Fields) as Crystal. Stanley White has a lip smacking and blood curdling good time as the voice of Audrey II. Puppeteer Scott Stratton superbly operates Audrey II, a very weird and complicated critter with its tentacles and an orifice right out of Jaws. Peter Kevoian is just right as the irascible Mr. Mushnik.

The design credits are first rate: scenery by Bill Bartelt, costumes by Brenda Winstead, lighting by Tim Fandrei, and sound by Barry Funderburg. William Underwood directs the excellent five-piece offstage small orchestra.

photos by Michael Brosilow

Little Shop of Horrors
Theatre at the Center in Munster, Indiana
scheduled to end on August 19, 2012
for tickets, call 219 836.3255 or visit Theatre at the Center

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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