By Ted Hoover
Pittsburgh Current Theater Reviewer
If anyone you know asks how come musicals these days have all been adapted from movies (instead of novels or real life like they used to be) I’d suggest you send them to the Pittsburgh Public Theater to catch their production of Little Shop of Horrors. The almost completely sold-out audience I saw the show with (on an evening when there was a sports game in town) proves the efficacy of a cinematic lineage.
Little Shop has, in fact, been through the adaptation process twice. In 1960, schlock master Roger Corman filmed one of his patented low-budget quickie horror films catering to the growing youth market. It was about a schlemiel of a nobody, Seymour Krelborn, who works at the run-down Mushnik Florist Shop and is in love with his fellow employee Audrey Fulquard. Seymour’s about to get fired for yet another mistake but talks the shop owner into keeping him because he’s cultivated a new breed of Venus fly trap that will bring in the customers – he’s named the plant “Audrey Jr.”
Little Shop of Horrors continues through February 23. Pittsburgh Public Theater, Downtown. 412/316-1600. www.ppt.org
Audrey Jr. turns out to live on human blood and body parts (and can talk!) and Seymour, in a Faustian bargain, supplies the corpses in return for fame and love. Of course the plant has its own agenda and pretty soon almost everyone ends up dead. Corman’s original became something of a cult favorite … partly because of a scene with a very young Jack Nicholson as a masochist at a sadistic dentist’s office.
In 1982 composer Alan Menken and lyricist/book writer Howard Ashman turned the film into a hugely successful off-Broadway musical, making several changes along the way including renaming “Audrey Jr.” as “Audrey II” and turning Audrey (the person) into a masochist dating the sadist dentist. The show ran for five years and launched Menken and Ashman’s career as the creators of the Disney animated films The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin.
Then in 1986 the off-Broadway version was adapted into a well-received movie musical with a completely altered ending; the original finale – which hewed closely to the off-B’way and 1960 versions – was considered too down beat by preview audiences and a new one was filmed. Several years later, following an extremely bumpy out-of-town experience, the show finally made it to Broadway in 2003.
So between the two movie versions and the two New York productions, Little Shop has been part of the cultural zeitgeist for almost 60 years … which may partly explain why nearly every seat at the Public Theater was filled. For some reason, people are more comfortable seeing something they’ve seen before.
But another reason might also be because the Public’s production is just so much damned fun. Menken and Ashman have written some incredibly enjoyable numbers – “Skid Row,” “Feed Me,” “Somewhere That’s Green” and one of the best musical theater songs ever written “Suddenly, Seymour.” And the Public’s director Marya Sea Kaminski has assembled a cast with the ability to send those songs straight up to the rafters.
If Philippe Arroyo as Seymour and Lauren Marcus as Audrey were any more adorable in the roles they would probably be radioactive. Both have a tremendously honed ability to play the off-beat comedy/farce style of Ashman’s script (with which Kaminski brilliantly saturates the entire production) and Arroyo and Marcus have voices of pure delight; Little Shop is really all about Seymour and Audrey and Kaminski guides these two perfect performers, with expert assistance from musical director John McDaniel.
None of that is meant, in anyway, to slight the rest of the cast. Tavia Riveé, Melessie Clark and Abigail Stephenson play the “Urchins,” three young girls functioning as Greek chorus and written in a tribute to early 60’s girl groups – the characters’ names are Crystal, Ronnette and Chiffon. Riveé, Clark and Stephenson spark the production with huge bursts of energy and plenty of humor.
One of the jokes of Little Shop is that when Audrey II grows up, the plant acquires a very deep baritone speaking and singing style and Monteze Freeland, providing the off-stage voice, goes to town milking as many laughs as possible from the dichotomy.
Patrick Cannon gets a chance to play a wide-ranging number of characters, mostly notably the villainous dentist, and has a ball with his performance. And Marc Moritz, playing Mushnik, adds his own fun as the character develops through the show. And a big hand to puppeteer J. Alex Noble for his seamless, and funny, manipulate of Audrey II.
Here’s proof of how popular Little Shop is – I’ve just read that a remake of the movie has been announced with filming to begin shortly. It’ll be interesting to see how a new look at the material will play out. As much as I like Little Shop I have to say that Audrey-as-battered-victim feels out of place in such a frothy comedy. The only time in the Public production when the mood chilled in the audience were those moments. So I’m curious how the remake will handle it.
But that’s got nothing to do with you and me right now. All we have to do is enjoy this boisterously enjoyable production.