by Joseph Ham
What do you get when you cross a man-eating alien plant with a hapless, lonely flower shop worker? Nothing good. Just ask Seymour Krelborn, he can tell you.
I had the pleasure of catching the opening weekend Sunday matinee performance of StageWorks Fresno’s production of Ashman and Menken’s cult classic musical, Little Shop of Horrors, based on Roger Corman’s black comedy film of the same name from 1960. And what a pleasure it was.
Most are at least passively familiar with the tale, but for those few who are not, it goes a little something like this: Seymour Krelborn, a humble floral assistant to Mr. Mushnik, stumbles upon a new species of plant that he decides to name Audrey II – after his co-worker, the girl he’s crazy about. Things take a turn when the otherworldly plant begins to talk, promising Seymour fame, fortune and the love of his life, just so long as he keeps satisfying its unsavory appetite for blood. Not just any old blood will due though. Like Audrey II says, it’s gotta be human. As you might expect, this eventually goes off the rails.
Director Joel C. Abels has crafted a theatrical experience that delivers well on both the dark humor and the slow-burning build of overwhelming dread surrounding Seymour’s life as his decision to give in to his innermost desires, by way of man-eating plant, comes back to bite him. No pun intended (just kidding, it was totally intended).
The aspect that ultimately impressed me most was the use of the small space offered by the Bonner Auditorium. As a frequent participant in productions at the Reedley Opera House, I’m no stranger to the challenge a small stage can present when attempting to produce larger than life productions. As scenic designers, Joel C. Abels and Aaron Lowe have more than risen to the occasion, offering up a condensed and impactful package, able to fit not only Mr. Mushnik’s entire flower shop and a man-eating plant, but at one point it even becomes the dentistry of Orin, Audrey’s sadistic and abusive boyfriend.However, there wasn’t enough space on stage to fit Tim Fletcher’s 5-piece band who accompany the production, so Joel has them “stuffed in a closet backstage”, as he jokingly put it in his pre-show announcements. Thankfully though, this hasn’t dampened their sound in the least, as Fletcher manages to coax a rockin’ tone out of his small but mighty troupe. A little too rockin’ on occasion. Sound is a tricky thing, especially when trying to balance live music with live singers, and sound designer Kyle Jensen has done a remarkable job maintaining that balance–for the most part. On a couple of occasions, singers were partially drowned out by their accompaniment, the most notable example being the show’s closing number “Don’t Feed the Plants”–made all the more tricky by virtue of it being a full cast number, making understanding lyrics that much harder. This is a minor grievance however, something I’m confident will work itself out as the run continues.
Terry Lewis gives us a very sympathetic Seymour, his vocals shifting effortlessly from sweet and floating to powerhouse rock n’ roll as the score demands. He’s a gentle fellow who wants nothing more than to be loved, and when he finds that love, we root for him. The sympathy we feel for Seymour is paired effectively with Will Bishop’s sinister turn as The Voice of Audrey II. His vocals soar, striking a strong balance between smooth R&B soul and a raspy rock n’ roll wail. He’s as funny as he is terrifying, creating conflicting emotions in us as the audience; He’s endlessly entertaining, but that whole man-eating plant thing sure does cause some issues. Logan Cooley brings plenty of laughs as The Body of Audrey II, adding physicality and life to the plant in hilarious, and sometimes unique, ways.Abigail Nolte offers us a sweet, genuine Audrey (the plant’s namesake). She stays away from the characterized lisp of Ellen Greene, but still offers plenty of quirky charm. She’s just a sweet girl caught in a bad situation. That bad situation is named Orin, her “semi-sadist” dentist boyfriend, played with equal parts goofiness and cruelty by Ted Nunes. He uses his dentistry and “antique” tools to get his jollies, among other things, by causing his patients severe pain.
A standout performance for me was that of Mark Standriff as the florist shop owner Mr. Mushnik. He not only embodies the put-upon Jewish flower shop owner, but his comic timing is so utterly spot-on and natural that he coaxes laughs out of what would be throw-away lines in the hands of a lesser actor. He and Terry can also dance a mean tango.
The Urchins have attitude to spare and vocal power to match in the talented hands of Kindle Cowger (Crystal), Caitlin Lopez (Ronnette), and Mackenzie Stafford (Chiffon). They provide the musical narration of the show, and layer tight vocal harmony with striking choreography, courtesy of expert choreographer Josh Montgomery, who’s also responsible for the aforementioned tango.
The entire cast is complimented well by Lisa Schumacher’s charming costumes, though special mention must be made of the Urchins’ many varied outfits and spectacular wigs (credit to hair/wig designer Eric Gomez). My only wish is that Audrey’s outfit in Act 2 had been a tad more tasteless; it would have helped one of my favorite jokes land a little harder (if you’ve seen the show before, you know exactly what joke I’m talking about). Though this is a minor nitpick at most.
Ultimately, this Little Shop of Horrors offers everything you’d expect and then some from a musical about an alien plant. This extraterrestrial being is the uneasy kind of evil; charismatic, witty and often times hilarious, all the while creating a terrible sense of foreboding. We know this won’t end well, but we just want to see more of that crazy talking plant.
Little Shop of Horrors is presented at the Fresno ART Museum-Bonner Auditorium, 2233 North 1st Street, Fresno, through October 22. Tickets can be purchased on the StageWorks Fresno website.