I have never been a fan of old horror movies. As a child of the ’60s, I readily admit to having been scared of even the cheesiest of the low-budget films. Those films, which now seem silly, served as thinly veiled allegories of the threat of “something out there” that could destroy life as we knew it. Bridgeport Theatre Company’s production of Little Shop of Horrors wraps up that allegory in a musical that pays a nostalgic homage to the B-film horror genre. Here, even themes of murder, mutilation, greed, and aliens conquering the earth seem less threatening and secondary to a few good laughs, and a toe-tapping good time.
Little Shop of Horrors is a fun show filled with the brilliant music and lyrics of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken and based on the film by Roger Corman about a failing Skid Row flower shop and a flesh-eating plant from outer space. The musical highlights include classic street-corner doo-wop, R&B, and standard show tune styled songs, many of which will seem new to those whose only familiarity with the show is the 1986 film adaptation.
The fact that there are only nine performers may also surprise fans of the movie. But thanks to the creative design team of Kevin Pelkey (sets), Phill Hill (lighting), Jessica Camarero (costumes) and Damon Testani (projection), this is not a sparse production. Stephanie Gaumer-Klein leads a six-piece live band that fills the theater with the sweet sounds of the early ’60s. All of these elements, along with an enormously talented cast under the skillful instruction of musical director Eli Newsom and the ingenious staging, direction, and choreography of Lance Gray help make this small ensemble show as enjoyable as a New York theater outing.
The casting is inspired. As the urchins known as Chiffon, Crystal, and Ronette, performers Heather Abrado, Alana Cauthen, and Sarah Paige Morris brilliantly set the tone for the show with their snarky, street-smart banter and amazing renditions of urban doo-wop, complete with soulful harmonies and classic girl-group choreography. Each of these girls has a phenomenal voice, and together they form a cohesive trio – one that I would love to listen to, even outside of the confines of this particular show.
In stark contrast to the pragmatic realism displayed by the urchins, Garth West’s believably humble Seymour, the hero of the story, gains our admiration, trust and sympathy as he bemoans his downtrodden lot in life, aspires to something greater, and then struggles with the ethical conundrums raised when it appears that his dreams are coming true. The girl of his dreams, Audrey, is admirably played with both comedy and pathos by Holly Martin, who not only embodies the essence of a ditzy blond bombshell from “the gutta” as she exclaims, but also the low self-esteem and vulnerability of an abused girl who believes she does not deserve better. Where Seymour only wistfully aspires to a better life, Audrey’s hopes and dreams stem from a deeper, more desperate place, which Ms. Martin captures so well that I got a little misty-eyed as she sang the reprise of “Somewhere That’s Green.” Seymour and Audrey make an unlikely couple, but the chemistry between these two actors make them seem like they were made for each other.
PJ Morello does a surprising turn as Seymour’s boss and flower shop owner, Mr. Mushnik. His exasperation with his failing business and his almost paternal concern for his staff are apparent in the beginning of the show, but as business picks up, we can palpably feel that concern slip away as it is replaced by greed. We get to witness Mushnik’s underhanded manipulation of the gullible Seymour in the delightfully comedic tango “Mushnik and Son.” It turns out even Mr. Mushnik is a no-goodnik. As is Audrey’s despicable, drug abusing, sadistic boyfriend Orin, convincingly portrayed by John Stegmaier, who rounds out the cast by also playing various other characters waltzing in and out of the flower shop. Kudos to Mr. Stegmaier for his comic timing and versatility.
All of these delightful characters are stirred up by the malevolent machinations of Audrey II, the plant that grows from a tiny sprout to an enormous pod on stage. The role of Audrey II is shared by Gina Lariccia as the plant’s deliciously sinister voice, and Sean Sepulveda who is the unseen and adept puppeteer who gives the giant pod life. With their help, Audrey II becomes more than a prop. She is a devilish character capable of seducing, threatening, and manipulating the inhabitants of the flower shop until the end, where they all get their just deserts. Unlike the film, there is no happy ending, but if you are like me and love great productions and entertaining musical theater, you will still leave the theater smiling.
Bridgeport Theatre Company’s Little Shop of Horrors runs through September 28 at the Downtown Cabaret Theatre in Bridgeport, CT.