Sunday, October 13, 2019

'Little Shop of Horrors' plants its voracious kiss on the Beef & Boards schedule

Lots of fun though it may be in its grotesque, fantastic way, "Little Shop of Horrors" makes a challenging choice for a theater whose formula involves putting a stage performance on top of comfort food for its patrons. But Beef & Boards Dinner Theatre displays its usual appetite for high-spirited entertainment with its production of the breakout 1982 collaboration of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman.

Fortunately, the musical comedy about a failing flower shop that turns a mysterious flesh-eating plant into a gold
mine is too buoyant to have people fretting about the possible revenge of the vegetable kingdom upon hungry human beings. Of the production seen Saturday, Beef & Boards now sets out the lion's share of nearly 40 performances remaining.

The roots of the show in cheesy sci-fi cinema are not far beneath the surface, and it ends up with its genre's scare tactics fully exercised: Earth has been invaded by something that makes the Venus flytrap look like a finicky eater easily satisfied with dispensable insect life. But the horror of the show's extrapolation of that idea is muted by a love story between shop assistant Seymour and co-worker Audrey, and the delightful, if menacing, soul-singer persona of a single lip-smacking plant, which Seymour has named Audrey II. Its fascinating appearance becomes all the more attractive as it grows to room-filling size, and greed proves to be its nurturer's undoing.
Mr. Mushnik and Audrey contemplate in wonder Seymour's prize plant.

The songs are a vital vehicle for putting across the fantasy. Their acclaimed cleverness was to yield within a few short years of "Little Shop"'s premiere to the Menken-Ashman team's Disney film triumphs, "The Little Mermaid" and "Beauty and the Beast." Howard Ashman, a playwright-lyricist of genius whose education included a master's degree from Indiana University, died of AIDS complications in 1991, ending a parade of hits that might have continued many years more. The Menken-Ashman signature was memorable wit and comic high spirits blended with lots of heart.

Directed by Jeff Stockberger, B&B's production makes the most of those virtues. There are instances when the face microphones obscure the lyrics almost as much as they amplify them, but the singing is robust and effectively staged. Josiah R. McCruiston provides Audrey II's booming voice from offstage, while Josh Maldonado moves  the puppet's flailing tendrils and ravenous chops from inside. The sound and sight of Audrey II are never indistinct, so the show's main attraction rules over all the ominous shenanigans.

Joey Boos plays the warmhearted nerd Seymour, forced to seek advancement on his own  by tending the plant he mysteriously came by during a solar eclipse. Only gradually does Audrey II's preference for warm blood dawn on its caretaker, with disastrous results. Boos' portrayal skillfully displayed Seymour's inner strength as he eventually wins the affection of Audrey, played sympathetically but with over-the-top ditsiness by Jenny Reber. Audrey's naive loyalty to her initial boyfriend, a ruffian dentist, verges on masochism, but the awkward decency of Seymour triumphs — up to the point when the plant's incessant "Feed me!" becomes overwhelming.

At the start, as the flower shop comes close to collapse in its rough neighborhood, Seymour endures disdainful treatment from  his employer, Mr. Mushnik (Douglas E. Stark). When the thriving Audrey II improves Mushnik's fortunes, he elevates the orphaned Seymour to the position of adopted son in "Mushnik and Son," a song featuring some of Ron Morgan's most amusing choreography. In that number, "Fiddler on the Roof" is gently parodied.

In song and dance, Urchins demonstrate the city's indomitable energy
Elsewhere, there's a wealth of borrowing from Motown girl-group staging in the supporting roles of the Urchins, whose trio partnership opens the show with the title song. Sometimes Devin Kessler, Jameelah Leandra, and Carlita Victoria were not in ideal vocal balance, but they functioned well as a performing unit and a crucial part of the atmosphere of Skid Row. That setting, designed for this production by Michael Layton, was represented with cartoonish authenticity in both the city block's exteriors and, by a slight turn of the playing area, inside the shop.

Musical director Terry Woods held down one of two keyboard spots in the offstage band, completed by percussion and guitar. Her work bore luxuriant fruit in a couple of places where it is most expected — in Audrey's wistful, passionate solo "Somewhere That's Green" and the love duet "Suddenly Seymour," with the Urchins as backup singers. Trio support also boosted the effectiveness of Orin Scrivello, DDS,'s self-introduction in "Dentist!," which put Logan Moore's firm stamp on a caricature portrayal of sociopathic machismo.

It's all part of the rancid good fun, of course. Neither dentists nor florists are likely to take offense. "Little Shop of Horrors" thrives in a world as loosely related to our own as can be, yet with an underlying message that Faustian bargains are as dangerous to undertake as ever. There's always some part of the universe that will prey without ceasing.

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