Updated: Jun 20
"A perfect date night for horticulturists, horror-cultists, sci-fi fans and anyone with a taste for the outrageous."
A certain carnivorous plant has been repotted in Hell’s Kitchen, and I am delighted to report that it’s thriving there. This hot showbiz shrub of yesteryear, which goes by the name of Audrey II, has found a new dance partner, a performer who can coax the tendril-stretching star quality out of this freakish botanical specimen.
That would be Matt DeNoto, who is generating major nerd charisma in a delicious revival of "Little Shop of Horrors," a 1982 Faustian musical by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken about a timid, bespeckled clerk who sells his soul to a man-eating fly-trap from outer space. On the face of it, a rather rarefied idea for a musical comedy! But a musical that’s as entertaining as it is exotic. It begins as a kind of New York slum version of ''The Little Shop Around the Corner,'' and before it gets halfway round that sentimental corner it turns into ''The Invasion of the Body Snatchers.''
The show, presented by the Long Beach Landmark Theatre Company, has been extended due to wild popularity through November 24th, and is the hot ticket centerpiece of this fall season's offerings, helmed and choreographed by Landmark’s Artistic Director Megan O’Toole, with near-perfect craftsmanship. Drawn from the famous low-budget Roger Corman film of the early '60s, "Little Shop..." takes place in an urban ghetto florist staffed by lonesome schlemiel Seymour Krelborn (Matt DeNoto), basically an indentured servant to the oy-so Jewish and cranky flower shop owner, Ms. Mushnik (Michelle Chaho), who had let him sleep under the counter as a child.
As Seymour, our dorky hero, Mr. DeNoto seasons his ingratiating persona as a song-and-dance kid with a dire helping of rankly corruptible innocence. Onstage, the show has been a deathless favorite of high school and community theaters for many years, reminding us of the special potency of grisly things that come in small, exotic packages. Mr. DeNoto’s affable, offhanded manner is a mix of sentimentality and macabre, and allows the character to literally get away with grotesque murder.
Ace design team Sean Balin, Doug Gissel and Mark Wheeler’s Skid Row set, with its retrograde pulp elements framing the dingy shop of the title, is an urban-legend rhapsody in grime, cast in an aura of low-rent noir, and lighted to chill by Joey Guthman. It is here that Seymour toils thanklessly as the klutzy assistant of its unsympathetic but winsome owner, Ms. Mushnik.
Cue the sweetly simple Audrey (Amanda Webb), a platinum blonde with a Jayne Mansfield figure, but a willing punching bag for her slimy, sadistic dentist boyfriend, Orin (the indefatigably vivid Jay Disart), who regularly leaves her with black eyes and twisted arms. Audrey is also the girl of Seymour’s dreams, and in her honor he bestows the name Audrey II on that strange and sickly plant he picked up in Chinatown during a solar eclipse. Their notion of a better life together somewhere in the suburbs ("Somewhere That's Green") is an endearing moment of budding affection.
Audrey II, it turns out, has a voice, a rolling, soulful, irresistibly imperious bass, provided by George Carson, sounding like a hybrid of Rick James and Barry White. Manipulated by puppeteer Sean Balin, Audrey II demands that Seymour feed it with human blood. Leftover roast beef just won’t do. Initially using his own well-pricked fingers to appease the carnivorous perennial, the plant keeps growing…and growing to gargantuan proportions, waving its branches and whimpering softly. Seymour finds himself becoming a star by association with this outsize creature. But maintaining fame requires sacrifice, and human sacrifice, at that.
When the plant unleashes its first words: "FEED ME!" demanding human flesh and blood, the digit-impaired Seymour recoils at first. “Look, you're a plant, an inanimate object."
Audrey II: Does this look inanimate to you, punk? If I can talk, and I can move, who's to say I can't do anything I want?”
After some heavy debate, Audrey II convinces the love-smitten Seymour to extirpate the abusive, leather-jacketed DDS as a way to round off two problems at once. Integrated with vivid lighting and dramatic orchestral music contributing to the sense of gravitas as Seymour feeds Orin's bloody body parts into the maw of Audrey II, it struck me how closely this “Little Shop…” scene mirrored the texture of Sondheim's “Sweeney Todd.”
Ashman (book and lyrics) and Menken (music) — who would go on to collaborate on beloved scores for animated Disney musicals like “The Little Mermaid” — had the felicitous idea of setting this story to the cadences and close harmonies of Brill Building-style pop. The plot here is annotated by a Greek chorus of street Urchins (Curtis Heard is the deft arranger and orchestrator). Their stylistic provenance is indicated by their names: Ronnette, Crystal and Chiffon, named after early sixties all-girl bands, consisting of the smartly synchronized yet spikily individualistic team of Courtney Kendall, Teanna Vick and Yunga Webb.
Amanda Webb’s confidence-challenged character, with a past checkered by the abusive orthodontist, injects commiserating conviction with the audience, whose discomfort is enhanced significantly upon seeing Audrey show up at work bruised and battered from her love life, a visual joke that registers uneasily. Ms. Webb’s fragile, helium-voiced airhead could turn on a dime, however, and sing with a ferocious, aching intensity that fills the house and goes straight to the core.
Wearing bandage-tight framing dresses and striking graceful poses of distress, this Audrey brings to mind those imperiled dames on the covers of vintage crime paperbacks. Ms. Webb’s sweetly guileless performance is a paragon of abject subservience. In contrast, Seymour is fairly inconspicuous when we first meet him.
But like Audrey II, Seymour continues to grow in presence. As he sidles across the stage, cradling an early, snapping hand puppet version of his truest soul mate, he’s surrounded by those frisky Urchins. Attention is new to Seymour; he likes it. And when he does an involuntary hip bump, his face glows with a subtle, gratified surprise. With renewed confidence, but without ever entirely abandoning his initial deadpan mien or milquetoast voice, Mr. DeNoto charts a precise evolution of a man becoming drunk on the prospect of world renown.
The Corman film of "Little Shop...” was, like many horror and sci-fi flicks of the Eisenhower years, a fable of the atomic age, playing to a nation’s fears of science run amuck. This triumphantly revitalized musical has its own sly message for an era in which gaining celebrity status is regarded as a constitutional right: Embrace fame at your own peril. It’s a killer.
Mr. Dysart, as Audrey's quirky Elvis wannabe boyfriend, gives his all in a swaggering performance as the leather jacketed, pain inflicting, bad-boy dentist, approaching the line of going too far, without stepping over it.
"I find a little giggle-gas before I begin gives me immense pleasure!"
His blackly, satirical “Dentist” was a scream and the hit of the evening, a number that brought the house down, and one that practically made Steve Martin a star in the 1986 Frank Oz film version.
Michelle Chaho captures the humorous Yiddishisms of the grumpy and meshuggeneh Ms. Mushnik in an all-embracing, sweeping, character turn, and frolics through the mock-tango "Mushnik and Son" with Seymour, wringing laughs from the borsht belt style number with ease. And Bam! That backup trio of street Urchins was flawless in delivery, every note exactly placed and burning with energy, snapping off eclectic, doo-wop, R&B, and even poignant pop ballads effortlessly.
”Little Shop of Horrors” has always been an odd musical. But the strangest aspect of ”Little Shop” is that just barely beneath the surface beats a sentimental heart. It never condescends to its characters or reduces them to cartoons; it has the goofy spirit of camp, without stooping to chilly superiority. But most of the time, the actors are what makes the difference. Perhaps that accounts for the show’s success here. Mr. DeNoto’s Seymour, for example, makes him more lovable, less doltish and lets us see what Audrey sees in him. His vocals are top-notch throughout, especially on his "Grow for Me" solo, as well as the soaring duet "Suddenly Seymour" with Ms. Webb’s Audrey.
James Carhart and Director Megan O’Toole’s costumes are campy '60s style delights, especially Audrey's outfits and a succession of eye-poppers for the Urchins, culminating in some flashy dresses that would be right at home in “Dreamgirls.” Sound Design is by David Macewan, Assistant Director is Martha Duncan, Marketing/Digital Media is by Jay Dysart, Technical Direction is by Doug Gissel, and Stage Management is by Alex Shewchuk.
Additional roles and ensemble includes George Carson also as a Derelict, Lisa Bode Heard as Bernstein, Carlos Carlos as Skip Snip, and Emily Morgan as Mrs. Luce. The orchestra, directed by Curtis Heard, included Diane Barkauskas, John Ballinger, Will Lyle, Amanda Duncan, Jeff Sissil, Daryl Golden, Tyler Hunt, Tati Giesler and Ian Holmquist.
“Little Shop of Horrors” continues through November 24th with only three more performances remaining — this next Friday and Saturday evening at 8pm and Sunday at 5pm, enacted on the sanctuary of the historic First Congregational Church of Long Beach on Cedar Avenue. For ticket information and reservations, see: https://lblandmark.org/
The Show Report