When Richard O’Brien sought inspiration for his 1974 comedy rock musical, The Rocky Horror Show, he turned to the horror B movies and low-budget science fiction thrillers of the 50s and 60s. With intentions of snagging a similar audience, when playwright and lyricist Howard Ashman looked back, he needed only the one low-budget B picture to inspire things: the 1960 black comedy, Little Shop of Horrors, a Roger Corman farce about a man-eating plant in a flower shop on Skid Row.
The show started small, premiering off-off-Broadway in 1982, then moving off-Broadway for a five-year run. It wouldn’t open officially on Broadway until 2003, but between its beginnings in ‘82 and its eventual Great White Way premiere 22 years later, Little Shop of Horrors had already enjoyed a life and a solid reputation that included a successful run in London, a popular 1986 movie musical, and because if its small cast and simple setup, countless dinner theatre, community theatre, and even high-school productions.
For its remaining production in the 2017-2018 season, Phoenix Theatre turned to the Howard Ashman/Alan Menken horror comedy rock musical and has done what it does best – produced a hugely entertaining, crowd-pleasing, high-production value show that begins on a high note with its prologue sung by the three street urchins, Crystal (Britney Mack), Ronette (Alyssa Chiarello), and Chiffon (Anne-Lise Koyabe) and remains there, right up until the end when the whole company warn us in the finale not to feed the plants.
Closely following the plot of the drive-in Corman film but with some tweaks, Little Shop of Horrors tells of a time when the whole human race “suddenly encountered a deadly threat to its very existence.” Young Seymour Krelborn (a suitably nerdy Brian Golub in glasses and a ball cap) has discovered a small, mysterious plant that suddenly appeared in the local wholesale flower district after an eclipse of the sun. He takes it back to his workplace, Mushnik’s Skid Row Florists, where he and the girl of secret dreams, Audrey (Kate E. Cook) nurture it in the hope of attracting new customers to the shop, and perhaps even a raise from the store owner, Mr. Mushnik (Scott Davidson).
But there’s a problem. After a slight accident involving a cut finger, Seymour soon discovers that the plant needs blood to survive – human blood. And in a Faustian twist where Seymour risks everything to ensure success, including winning the heart of Audrey, the young orphan boy of Mushnik’s Florists feeds his ever growing plant more blood, then more, until it’s too late and the all-talking, all-singing plant, its limbs spreading like kudzu all over the place, develops ambitions of its own. “Looks like you’re not happy unless I open a vein,” states Seymour.
The music comes from the 60s doo-wop period, backed by the trio of urchins based on the all-girl groups of the time, like the Crystals, The Ronettes, and The Chiffons, with a smattering of Motown to boot. The Ashman/Menken score was always good, but hearing it again after a lengthy absence, you’re reminded just how much fun the whole thing always was, and remains.
Musical highlights include the Downtown song, Skid Row where the ensemble sing of its life in the downtrodden area of New York, a well-staged, humorously written number that introduces everyone you’re about to encounter and the area in which they live and work; Somewhere That’s Green, a wistful, memorable balled, wonderfully sung by Cook who does an admirable job of puncturing the belief that only Ellen Greene could ever do Audrey justice; Dentist!, the wildly absurd ode to the teeth-pulling career of a sadist, performed with all the non-stop, Loony Tunes energy of a whirling dervish by the leader of the plaque, Toby Yatso; and Feed Me, where Antonio Leroy King adds his impressive and comically expressive pipes to the voice of the plant. Special mention to unseen cast member Titus Kautz, excellent as the operator to the gleefully ravenous Skid Row plant that looks like a cross between a Venus Fly-Trap, a Triffid, and when it opens its mouth for feeding, Bruce the Shark from Jaws.
Despite the black level of humor that includes the feeding of bodies to the plant as it continues to grow and take over the shop, there’s a feeling of comical goodwill that constantly emerges from this top-notch cast under the experienced direction and musical staging of Robert Kolby Harper. As a director of musicals, Harper’s background in song and dance manifests in his theatrical staging, as if his natural inner rhythm can’t help but express itself through his style of direction. Like a well-choreographed production, the whole show flows from scene to scene, from song to song, without missing a step, or a beat.
Little Shop of Horrors continues at Phoenix Theatre, Phoenix until June 10
Pictures Courtesy of Reg Madison Photography