Tending a plant that won’t take ‘no’ for an answer

Seymour (Lukas Tomasacci) hopes his newly discovered plant will help him win over his beloved Audrey (Edelyn Parker). (Shadowbox Live photo)
Seymour (Lukas Tomasacci) hopes his newly discovered plant will help him win over his beloved Audrey (Edelyn Parker). (Shadowbox Live photo)

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.

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If Miracle-Gro doesn’t work, try blood

Seymour (Preston Pounds) and Audrey II are surrounded by “Urchins” Monica Brown, Marina Pires and Haley Jones (from left) in Little Shop of Horrors (photo by Ed Syguda)
Seymour (Preston Pounds) and Audrey II are surrounded by “Urchins” Monica Brown, Marina Pires and Haley Jones (from left) in Little Shop of Horrors (photo by Ed Syguda)

By Richard Ades

One of my favorite musical experiences of all time was Otterbein’s 2011 production of The Drowsy Chaperone, whose many perks included Preston Pounds’s portrayal of the agoraphobic central character.

Now Pounds is back as Seymour, the unfortunate plant-shop employee in Little Shop of Horrors. His presence guarantees that the movie-based musical will have a core of likable vulnerability that keeps it from drowning in silliness.

The presence of director David Hemsley Caldwell, an old hand at Otterbein musicals (including Chaperone), is another harbinger of good things to come. Caldwell keeps things fun and quirky while only occasionally allowing the proceedings to descend into self-conscious campiness.

With a book by Howard Ashman and based on Roger Corman’s 1960 cult flick, Little Shop is set in a Skid Row plant shop that’s seen better times. (Or maybe it hasn’t—it is located on Skid Row.)

After suffering through a particularly slow day, owner Mushnik (an extravagantly accented Kyle Hansen) threatens to fire both Seymour and fellow employee Audrey (a glamorously attired but flighty Madison Tinder). But then Seymour reveals that he’s discovered a strange plant—some kind of flytrap, he thinks—and has named it “Audrey II” in honor of the woman for whom he secretly lusts. Once word of the exotic plant gets out, the customers start flocking in.

Just a slight problem: Seymour learns that Audrey II thrives on one thing and one thing only: human blood. Is he willing to become a murderer in order to keep his new meal ticket alive? Pounds imbues Seymour with just enough humanity to clarify the struggle between his basic decency and his desire for success, which he hopes will finally impress the beautiful Audrey. Audrey, meanwhile, suffers from such low self-esteem that she seems incapable of escaping the abusive clutches of her sadistic boyfriend, Orin (Harry Sanderson).

Obviously, Little Shop of Horrors deals with dark subjects, but the overall atmosphere is as goofy and gleefully malevolent as Audrey II herself (a puppet voiced by John Henry Carter). Helping to set the mood is a slyly sexy trio of “Urchins” (Monica Brown, Haley Jones and Marina Pires) who serve as a sort of Greek chorus.

But what really keeps things lively is the score, a collection of songs by Alan Menken (music) and Ashman (lyrics) that capture the flavor of early rock, blues and folk. Hummable favorites include the Prologue (sung by the Urchins) and Suddenly, Seymour (sung by Seymour and Audrey). Both the solos and the harmonized numbers are nicely handled by the cast and the offstage band led by Dennis Davenport.

Rob Johnson’s clever and realistic set, Andy Baker’s mock-scary lighting and Julia Ferreri’s playful costumes add to the entertainment value of this drolly bloodthirsty musical comedy.

Otterbein Summer Theatre will present Little Shop of Horrors through July 27 at Cowen Hall, 30 S. Grove St., Westerville. Performances are at 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday (July 14 only), plus 8 p.m. July 18 and 2 p.m. July 19. Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25. 614-823-1109 or www.otterbein.edu/drama.