By Robert Israel
The Lyric Stage Company of Boston is giving this nostalgic hokum a spirited production.
Little Shop of Horrors, book and lyrics by Howard Ashman. Music by Alan Menken. Directed and choreographed by Rachel Bertone. Music direction by Dan Rodriguez. Staged by Lyric Stage Company of Boston, 140 Clarendon St., Boston, MA, through October 6.
Little Shop of Horrors hearkens back to a time when the seamy side of life in our country proliferated like harmful bacteria in a Petri dish (in this musical, the sick bacteria escapes from the dish and takes the form of a gigantic flesh-eating plant). Back in the days of yore, Boston had its Combat Zone, New York City its Hell’s Kitchen and Bowery (now sites of high-rise yuppie enclaves). In this musical fantasy, the latter is referred to as Skid Row. It’s not a particularly friendly place, nor is it very sanitary – all the better for alien spores with a proclivity for ingesting human flesh and blood to, um, flourish. Lyric Stage is giving this nostalgic hokum a spirited production.
The material debuted in 1960 via a cheapo Roger Corman film (with a young actor named Jack Nicholson playing a minor role). It later was reinvented as a stage show off-Broadway, where it achieved success. It was trucked into Boston in the 1980s (I saw a version of it at the Charles Playhouse back then), where it was given a rousing production with a live, on-stage band, and a sound system that pumped up the rock ‘n roll recycling.
The Little Shop here is a less campy, significantly quieter version (it would benefit from turning up the volume) with a a talented cast that seems to truly enjoy performing it (and successfully communicates that delight to the audience). It also succeeds in serving up an entertaining throwback to the Motown groups that once blasted from transistor radios on AM stations: the so-called “girl groups” – African American women, like the Vandellas, the Shirelles, and the Supremes — who sang, dressed, and danced in unison and who cranked out 2.5 minute hits. We leave the Lyric humming the tunes from the show the way we once did when we heard songs like these on the radio.
The girl group trio of Chiffon (Pier Lamia Porter), Crystal (Lovely Hoffman), and Ronette (Carla Martinez) could easily steal the show, if it weren’t for the onstage presence of Audrey II, the evil, blood-sucking plant. Co-conspirators Yewande Odetoyinbo (Audrey II’s voice) and Tim Hoover (puppeteer) have the vim and vigor of mad alien scientists. Their capable talents combined, Audrey II takes the form of a lovable menace (if such a thing can be tolerated), never becoming too scary (the duo play it for laughs, even when their creation is chomping on human flesh).
The lead players are not as effective as the supporting cast, however. As Seymour Krelborn, Dan Prior has to communicate a blend of awkwardness and fledgling confidence. It’s not an easy task, and sometimes he falters. (His singing voice is less effective early on, but it perks up after a few numbers.) Katrina Z. Pavao, who plays Audrey (the human), is his love interest. She’s a hilarious ditzy blond, and she outshines her costar. Pavao makes use of every opportunity to dazzle us, as actress Ellen Greene did in the second film version, directed by Frank Oz, back in 1986. Remo Airaldi, who plays their employer at the plant shop, Mr. Mushnik, could take a few pointers from the late Vincent Gardenia in the Oz film, who infused more New York Jewish mannerisms into his role. The fourth member of the cast (who takes on several roles) is the talented Jeff Marcus, who plays Orin and others (thankfully, with considerably less manic behavior than over-the-top actor Steve Martin did in the Oz film version).
Kudos to Marion Bertone for her splendid costumes throughout, especially for the girl group singers who one moment appear as guttersnipes crouching in the grit of Skid Row, the next as singers who wow us with smashing matching outfits. At one point they enter the auditorium from the wings looking like a trio of sparklers. Put together the power of their harmonies with the eye-filling costumes and you have delightfully garish vocal eye candy.
There are plenty of invitations in the show to indulge in kitsch and campiness, but director Rachel Bertone exercises restraint, sometimes not wisely. For example, when Audrey II, which now has become gargantuan, gobbles up poor Mr. Mushnick, it might be fun to have actor Airaldi flail about a bit more, you know, as the plant gnaws and chomps away on his pudgy limbs. The sound effects could be played up here too — maybe some howls of agony? A decision has been made to play down the comic/macabre aspects of Little Shop of Horrors, so there are fewer giggles at the grisly than there could be. Still, this Little Shop is a fun romp overall, kicking off a promising new season at the Lyric Stage.
Robert Israel writes about theater, travel, and the arts, and is a former member of Independent Reviewers of New England (IRNE). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.