By Richard Ades
Skid Row isn’t the best location for a flower shop. That’s the conclusion store owner Mr. Mushnik (Tom Cardinal) reaches following a sales-less day in Little Shop of Horrors.
Luckily, store clerk Seymour (Lukas Tomasacci) discovers a mysterious plant that soon has customers flocking to their door. Well, maybe “luckily” isn’t the right word, since Seymour quickly learns that the plant thrives only when it gets a steady supply of its favorite food: human blood.
Based on a low-budget 1960 film, the stage musical opened off-off-Broadway in 1982 but was soon transplanted to Broadway, where it bloomed into a five-year hit. Its success is mostly due to the sparking collection of rock, pop and blues songs written by lyricist Howard Ashman and composer Alan Menken, the team behind Disney’s The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast.
Though obviously darker than those family-friendly flicks, the musical shares a seed of humanity and a sense of fun that prevent it from becoming too macabre.
At Shadowbox, it’s hardly surprising that director Stev Guyer and his cast have no trouble with the musical numbers. The vocals are both strong and expressive, never allowing the characters’ personalities to get lost in the melodic underbrush. Accompanying them is a four-piece band that has a feel for the music, which often sounds like a holdover from rock’s innocent early years.
Between songs, the production mostly hits the right dramatic and comic notes.
Tomasacci wins our sympathy as Seymour, an orphan who was taken in by Mr. Mushnik as a child. As a result of his gratefulness and low self-esteem, Seymour feels unworthy of demanding better treatment from the employer who underpays and overworks him. And he feels even less worthy of the woman he secretly worships, fellow clerk Audrey (Edelyn Parker).
For her part, Audrey has even lower self-esteem, to the extent that she puts up with constant abuse from her sadistic dentist/boyfriend, Orin (Jamie Barrow). Parker plays Audrey as a stereotypical bimbo but with an undercurrent of longing that becomes palpable in the wistful ballad Somewhere That’s Green. Unfortunately, Parker adds a veneer of stagy melodrama by striking poses straight out of the silent-film era. It’s a puzzling choice that undercuts an otherwise sympathetic portrayal.
As Orin, the nitrous oxide-addicted dentist who’s never happy unless he’s making Audrey or his patients miserable, Barrow is like a less-scary version of Dennis Hopper’s maniac in Blue Velvet. He’s amusing, but a bit more menace would make him a better villain.
Then again, when it comes to menace and villainy, it would be hard to beat the bloodthirsty plant that Seymour names Audrey II. Depicted by puppets of ever-increasing sizes, it’s voiced by Billy DePetro in raucous tones that suggest an evil radio deejay.
Helping to establish the neighborhood’s rundown character are a mostly silent wino (Brandon Anderson) and three spunky “urchins” (Noelle Grandison, Nikki Fagin and Ashley Pearce). The latter serve as a streetwise Greek chorus, commenting from the sidelines and occasionally breaking into song.
Watching a scene in which Seymour contemplates committing murder to feed the insatiable Audrey II, some may be reminded of a similar scene from Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, which a couple of local troupes revived in the spring. Though otherwise completely different, both musicals sport bloody plots driven by love: love lost in Sweeney Todd and love desired in Little Shop of Horrors.
That fertile bit of humanity, along with the hummable tunes, keeps Ashman and Menken’s cult hit from withering away on its farcical vine.
Little Shop of Horrors will be presented through Nov. 27 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St., Columbus. Show times are 2 and 7 p.m. select Sundays (no shows Nov. 6 or 20), plus 2 p.m. Dec. 3, 10 and 17. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25, $20 students/seniors. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.