Sunday, January 17, 2016

Musical black comedy delights and could incite thinking at Cleveland Play House

How does the musical black comedy LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS fit into the Cleveland Play House’s 100th anniversary theme of paying homage to their history?  To find the answer requires going back to May, 1916, when the theatre staged THE DEATH OF TINTAGILES.   The avant-garde play starred marionettes created by Helen Haiman Joseph, who created Puppet Players Theatre at CPH in the mid-1920s. 

As anyone who has seen LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS knows, the central character in the comedy horror rock musical, composed by Alan Menken and written by Howard Ashman, is an innocent little (puppet) plant named Audrey II, which grows into a blood-thirsty monster.

Another instance of CPH paying homage concerns Amanda Dehnert, the director of "LITTLE SHOP", who in 2006 and 2007, staged the theatre’s MY FAIR LADY and MAN OF LA MANCHA.

LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS is based on the cult-favorite, low budget film of the same name.  The stage show differs from the film in the ending, the dropping of several characters and some editing to the score. 

The musical’s 1960s rock and roll, do-wop, gospel, early Motown score includes such finger-snapping, body gyrating songs as “Skid Row,” “Grow for Me,” “Feed Me,” “Suppertime,” “Don’t Feed the Plants,” and, the title song, “Little Shop of Horrors.”

The story centers on Seymour, a nerdy, hapless orphan, who was taken in by Mr. Mushnik, who owns a down-and-out florist shop on Skid Row.  Seymour has a crush on the ditzy blonde, Audrey, his co-worker at the store, who is in an abusive relationship with an evil motorcycle-riding, black leather jacket-wearing sadistic dentist.  

One day Seymour, while visiting the wholesale flower district, buys what looks like a Venus Flytrap. As it turns out, Audrey II, as the plant is known, is not just an ordinary plant.  This leafy carnivore requires blood to survive.  Unusual in looks and size, people come to see it, buy floral arrangements, and want to interview and praise Seymour.

First, Seymour donates his own blood, but soon that supply wears out.  The sudden attention getting Audrey II demands more and more plasma.  Seymour likes his new-born fame and the attention from Audrey.  His desire for more accolades drives him to do horrendous things.

The script and musical score are creatively developed.  At the start, an off-stage voice, that later doubles for the sound of Audrey II, relates that “On the twenty-first day of the month of September, in an early year of a decade not too long before our own, the human race suddenly encountered a deadly threat to its very existence.  And this terrifying enemy surfaced—as such enemies often do—in the seemingly most innocent and unlikely of places.”

The music creates characters and pushes along the story.  Audrey’s music is pretty and feminine, Seymour’s mainstream sounds intensify throughout the story as he changes from nerdy and meek to outlandish and evil.  Audrey II’s R&B sound also intensifies as it becomes big and more demanding.

The Urchins, an all-girl band, set the scene and act as a Greek chorus to fill in the back story.

The musical can be taken as an escapist piece of sci-fi tale of horror and romance and enjoyed on that level, or it can be thought-of as the authors’ attempt to send a values message. 

For the latter, realizing that the script was written during the Nixon presidency when the leader of the free world was concealing his unethical actions to insure his keeping the presidency may help to explain the writers’ moral theme.  It could lay the foundation for understanding Seymour’s reactions to fame, and the actions he undertook to insure his continued success.  Both Nixon’s and Seymour’s  ethical errors are taken to extremes and the consequences are great.  Menken and Ashman seem to be asking if the desire for achieving one’s dreams is worth the consequences of taking those unethical actions.

The musical premiered Off-Off Broadway in 1982 and moved Off-Broadway for a five-year run.  Early in 2003 a pre-Broadway production was staged in Coral Gables, Florida, starring Clevelander and Kent State grad Alice Ripley, as Audrey.  In spite of raves for her performance, after a shakeup in the cast and production team, Ripley did not appear in the October, 2003 Broadway production.

The CPH production is adeptly staged by Amanda Dehnert.  The director, choreographer and musical director’s touches are all over the re-invention of some aspects of the show.  Especially important is that the 3-person do-wop singers become the five-piece swinging Urchins [Hallie Bulleit (Bass), Brittany Campbell (Guitar), Kate Ferber (Keyboard I), Injoy Fountain (Drums) and Alanna Saunders (Keyboard II)]who sing, play instruments, and perform various roles with power and panache.

Ari Butler, he with the looks and mannerisms of Johnny Galecki (”Leonard” of TV’s  “Big Bang Theory”), is a little Geek-light, but is convincing as Seymour.  Lauren Molina is compelling as Audrey, both vulnerable and appealing, though her affected high–pitched speaking gets a little much at times.  Her rendition of “Suddenly Seymour” is endearing.  (To read a profile spotlight of Molina go to and scroll down to the story.)

Larry Cahn makes Mr. Mushnik live.  Joey Taranto creates an Orin, Audrey’s abusive boyfriend, who is evil incarnate.  Deep-voiced Eddie Cooper  both narrates and acts as the voice of Audrey II with strong positive effect.  Puppeteer Kev Abrams operates Audrey II with skill.

Philip Witcomb’s set design sometimes slows down the action due to the constant sliding in and out of the flower shop which also adds the distracting presence of stagehands moving the set.  The backdrops and bandstand are well conceived.  Josh Horvath’s sound design works well, especially in aiding in the creation of the menacing Audrey II.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS will delight audience members who are looking for an escapist evening of theatre, while giving the “thinking” audience an opportunity to consider the implications of the Ashman-Menken creation.  The show is well-conceived by director/choreographer/musical director Amanda Dehnert.

LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS runs through February 7, 2016, at the Allen Theatre in PlayhouseSquare.  For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to

Next up at CPH:  THE MOUNTAINTOP, January 23-Feburary 14 @ Outcalt Theatre, followed by Shakespeare’s THE TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA (Case Western Reserve University/Cleveland Play House MFA Acting Program)