COLLEGE PARK – Showing at The Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center through Oct. 12, “Little Shop of Horrors” originated as a 1960 low-budget comedy-horror film by B-movie director Roger Corman and with an early appearance by Jack Nicholson.
It later developed a cult following, triggering the inception of a 1982 Off-Off-Broadway musical, which in turn inspired a 1986 big-budget film starring Rick Moranis and Steve Martin.
The plot revolves around a nebbish named Seymour working in a decrepit flower shop on Skid Row.
Seymour unwittingly discovers a most unusual plant which promises to rescue him, his would-be girlfriend Audrey and his employer Mushnik out of poverty.
The downside is that what makes the ever-growing plant (named Audrey II, after Seymour’s love interest) unusual is its thirst for blood, first Seymour’s, and later other’s as well. The program notes refer to this appropriately as a “Faustian bargain.”
The University of Maryland’s production is stunning in its opulent set, excellent actors and singers, and fine musicians. And so is the plant, which despite its quest for blood!, is downright cute, with Muppet-inspired features (Four different puppets are used in all to represent Audrey II). The sets evoke the early 1960s of the original film, complete with neon lights and retro adverts for Coca-Cola, moon pie and (this being Skid Row) various forms of booze.
Technical effects are also used in clever ways, such as the use of an LED-lighted diving helmet, which shows the maniacal dentist’s features to great effect.
For those of us who know “Little Shop” primarily through the original black-and-white film, it is also a treat to see this University of Maryland production performed in eye-popping, gorgeous color.
All performers, as well as the five-piece orchestra, are outstanding. Erin Valade, as the naïve and abused Audrey, has a particularly fine voice, with a broad range, emotional subtlety and volume.
Indeed, one of the joys of live theatre is when something goes wrong and yet showmanship overcomes it to positive advantage.
Valude’s microphone appeared to fail, compelling the performer to sing with her full power and range, to great effect. Andrew Saundry is also in fine form as the hapless Seymour, ably showing the character’s put-upon but sometimes noble character.
Gabrys Wronka, in turn, delivers a stand-out performance as the thoroughly reprehensible Dr. Orin Scrivello, DDS, demonstrating a mastery not only of the incongruity and musicality, but also the physicality, of this multifaceted character.
Just as the original film comes from the very early1960s, the music score of “Little Shop of Horrors” is in the doo-wop style of the same period, with an occasional beguine-to-tango number, reminding us of the music of that time period was not all rock and roll. For the doo-wop numbers, little can top “Skid Row (Downtown)” and “Da-Doo,” sung Sha-Na-Na style by the ensemble cast and in particular the “three narrators.” On the ballad side, Saundry gives us a fine rendition of “Suddenly Seymour,” while Valade is outstanding with “Somewhere That’s Green.”
Perhaps the only criticism of this fine production is that it is so true to its original Off-Off-Broadway source that little awareness is displayed of our own era.
During a post-show presentation given by the music director and several of the show’s staff, one audience member commented on occasional feelings of unease about the script’s apparent forays into anti-Semitic humor and easy treatment of an abusive relationship.
The response was that the campiness of the humor, combined with the fact that the show’s writers, Allan Menken and Howard Ashman, are both Jewish, compensated for this; further, some degree of empowerment was shown when some of the female narrators threaten and berate the evil Dr. Scrivello.
This reviewer was left wondering that perhaps an opportunity had been missed to update the incisive and offbeat humor of the 1960, 1982 and 1986 versions and make it similarly edgy for 2018 as well.
Overall, though, the show is clearly a winner. Like the blood- and human-eating plant, this “Little Shop of Horrors” grows on you with its infectious charm as well as top-notch production values. The show contains mature themes and occasional strong language.