Little Shop of Horrors is one of those shows that never seems to get old even though every high school and community theater mounts it year after year, and for good reason. It contains a memorable and catchy score by Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman as well as a cast of characters that actors love to sink their teeth into. Oh, and of course there is acute puppetry that is essential to any successful production. [A recent Chicago production of Little Shop was presented with a human being playing Audrey II which was both bizarre and unrewarding, going against the show's original creators intent].
Theatre at the Center director/choreographer, Stacey Flaster has mounted a tried and true Little Shop, including using the original concept of one actor playing most of the ensemble roles (as well as a very special plant which will be discussed later). The beauty of Little Shop of Horrors is in its writing. The script, as is, contains the bones to make a solid production as long as the director has an intrinsic understanding of what makes the show tick and the has the ability to convey that to the actors. The effort here seems half-hearted.
Of course everyone knows the plot of this 1982 off-Broadway hit (based on the 1960 Roger Corman film). A quick synopsis for those who live in a bubble; a alien plant descends to the earth during a "total eclipse of the sun" and lands on skid row; is found by a nerdish, orphaned flower-shop worker; alien plant makes orphan rich and famous; disaster ensues as plant eats humans and takes over the world.
Many, many directors fall into the fly-trap that is Little Shop. They either do not understand the character dynamics or just don't care because the audience demographic will like the show regardless. The best productions are comical but have a very gritty undertone. That undertone and sense of foreboding are missing here. Not because the actors aren't acutely capable, but the director seems to have taken the easy way out to pander to the theater's subscription base.
The lead characters are broken individuals. Seymour (Jon Cunningham) is orphaned at an early age and grew into a man devoid of any type of parental love; a love which he gives to his plant. Audrey (Tiffany Trainer) is a product of her impoverished environment and is physically and emotionally abused by the men she meets, thinking it is deserved. (Audrey sings "nobody ever treated me kindly; Daddy left early, mamma was poor. I'd meet a man and I'd following him blindly. He'd snap his fingers, me, I'd say "sure".). If that doesn't give a director and actress fodder for a character's back-story, I don't what else does. Without this basic understanding of the psychologically damaged aspects of the characters, Little Shop as a show, is nothing more than a producer's easy way out to get easy money from an unsophisticated audience.
For this production, if you close your eyes and simply listen to the vocals, you would think that a definitive cast recording has been made. But once you start watching the characters interact with each other, you see nothing but caricatures instead of characters. Barely a scene goes by where Mr. Cunningham isn't pandering his emotions to the audience instead of directly connecting with Ms. Trainer for whom he is supposedly deeply in love. Because of this, you never get the notion that these two actually care about each other.
The other missing component is the relationship between Seymour and Audrey II (voiced magnificently by Stan White). For it to work it correctly, it needs to be treated like real, nurturing relationship, not unlike a father and son. Again, the show takes this component superficially where in actuality, it is the backbone of the story. When the plant which Seymour raises from "birth" betrays him and everything he build, there is never a since of loss. Now, I am definitely not saying that "Little Shop" should be treated like a Shakespearean tragedy, but one taking on the show must delve in a bit deeper than just reading the words. That is what makes songs like "Somewhere That's Green" rip your heart out when done correctly. If you don't believe me, just take a gander at any video of Ellen Greene or Alice Ripley and look in their eyes when they sing of a better place.
Ms. Flaster's production does have some fun moments. Rod Thomas is sensational as the sadistic Dentist (as well as his supporting roles, taking on each with viral artistic acumen). Peter Kevoian is the quintessential "Mr. Mushnik" and skid-row divas Eva Ruwe, Reneisha Jenkins and Chadae McAlister (Crystal, Ronette and Chiffon) are a joy to listen to and have the attitude to back it up.
The plant is resurrected and fantastically refurbished from the old Candlelight Dinner Theater which was lucky enough to purchase the original from the off-Broadway production. Kudos to Scott Stratton who expertly operates Audrey II, and working on this show in another great theater city, I know this is probably the most under-appreciated job in musical theater history!
Drury Lane and the Marriott Lincolnshire have successfully bucked the subscription base trend (for the most part) by trusting the integrity of the core material instead of pandering to what was their perceived demographic. In doing so, both these marvelous theater companies have redefined themselves by producing some of the finest productions outside of Broadway while keeping and/or expanding their audience base. Theatre at the Center has the talent and ability to do the same if they so choose and their audience will most definitely follow.
Little Shop of Horrors runs through August 19, 2012 at Theater at the Center, 1040 Ridge Road, Munster, Indiana. For more information please visit www.theatreatthecenter.com