What seemed so axiomatic when Little Shop of Horrors opened Off-Broadway in 1982 — that it was a little musical — was shunted aside when the smash hit was finally revived on Broadway in 2003. Bringing the show to Broadway seemed against the grain to Howard Ashman after he had directed his own original adaptation of Roger Corman’s 1960 sci-fi comedy. His misgivings were borne out by the lukewarm reviews from the New York critics and the equally tepid box office.
Big productions of Little Shop, like the touring version that hit Ovens Auditorium in 2005, have been aberrations. Around the country, the welcome mat for Ashman’s artful adaptation, with a rockin’ doo-wop score by Alan Menken, is customarily rolled out by smaller regional companies and community theatres.
A little surprising, then, to see Central Piedmont Theatre bringing Audrey, Seymour, and Audrey II to Halton Theater, which is only marginally smaller than the Virginia Theatre (now the August Wilson), where it ran on Broadway. But guess what? Charlotte isn’t receiving Little Shop as if it were a niche musical for guerilla companies and intimate venues. A robust crowd turned out for this past Sunday’s matinee, with armloads of tickets sold up in the oft-empty Halton balcony.
Nor is director Ron Chisholm and his CP team shying away from the challenge of making Little Shop big. James Duke’s set design fills the stage from wing to wing, and Chisholm pours a larger cast around Audrey and Seymour than the one that populated Mushnik’s Flower Shop and Skid Row in the Broadway revival. I should also say that Chisholm pours a larger cast into Audrey II, but I won’t spoil how that plays out.
My wife Sue didn’t recognize any of the names on the CP cast list, which ultimately demonstrated just how deep Charlotte’s talent pool is these days. The name I recognized from her starring role over the summer in CP’s Beehive, Iris DeWitt, was not to be recognized here at Mushnik’s. With body mics liberally distributed among the Skid Row citizenry, it’s safest to say that DeWitt was represented onstage by the latter Audrey II puppets. That’s when the alien plant lets loose with her infamous “Feed Me,” displaying its vocal gifts upon growing to maturity.
While you need a full-throated — even intimidating — voice that DeWitt brings to an invader that metastasizes into a global threat, we need to get more ambivalent impressions of Seymour, Mushnik and the human Audrey. We empathize with the orphaned Seymour, who is bossed by Mushnik, bullied by Mushnik, terrified by Audrey’s dentist boyfriend and ignored by Audrey.
Until Seymour becomes homicidal.
Then we see him feeding body parts to Audrey 2 and covering up his guilt by luring Mushnik into the same maw. He’s reluctant to do 2’s bidding and become a bloodthirsty killer, but it’s bringing him fortune, fame, and — in his mind — the Audrey who has hitherto shunned him. Ultimately, he pushes back, ready to face what his recovered integrity brings him. It’s a fairly daunting role for Matthew Howie in his Charlotte debut, and the dude must also prove he can sing — both as a downtrodden clod and, in “Suddenly, Seymour,” as a newly-minted romantic hero. Howie knows how, and Chisholm gives him a comical Clark Kent moment to punctuate his transformation.
Nearly 60 years after she first appeared onscreen, we look more askance at Audrey for absorbing and covering up the abuse she takes from Orin, her dentist boyfriend, than we do for her presumed promiscuity. She encourages Seymour to stand up to Mushnik, and when he suddenly achieves celebrity, declares she isn’t good enough for him. Anna Farish proved to be sensational in her own way as Seymour’s ideal, belting “Suddenly Seymour” opposite Howie with equal gusto in their duet and tapping into Audrey’s humdrum sweetness in the gooey “Somewhere That’s Green.”
I quite envy anyone who hears the reprise of that bucolic ballad for the first time. The sick comedy of it comes through in Farish’s last gasps, but that was one of multiple moments when I wished I were seeing Little Shop in a more intimate venue. Because a huge set piece by Duke was spun around when we went from the outdoor squalor of Skid Row to the inside of the flower shop, scenes at the shop played too far away upstage for maximum enjoyment.
On the other hand, there were plenty of outsized performances besides DeWitt’s to help bridge the distance. Most outré was Victor Tran as the sadistic, laughing-gas fueled Orin, who gets to shine late in Act 1 singing “Dentist” with a backup trio, somewhat denuded of its usual ’50’s trimmings. Clad in leather when he calls on Audrey, Tran also gets to handle two of the most interesting props in this production, an emasculated motorcycle and the wondrous dentist’s chair he mounts in order to terrorize Seymour — extracting only a single tooth, alas.
Jake Yara has that slight avuncular quality — and the hearty voice — you want to see in Mushnik and plenty of the selfish greed you want to see offsetting it. Mushnik is a bit of a Jewish stereotype, more comical than offensive. But when Yara sings “Mushnik and Son” with Howie, as Mushnik offers to make the suddenly promising Seymour his partner, there’s a pinch of warm regard mixed into his cunning pragmatism. On the street, where the alleys and trashcan evoke the seedy ‘hood, Katie Marcelino, Logan Cosper and Taylor Goodwin do more than just sing backup.
They keep it real. So does the ensemble actor who plays the neighborhood drunk, rousing from his stupor only long enough to sing the low notes.