Time to shop for some big green with bite at the Stratford Festival this summer.
Little Shop Of Horrors is a tuneful tribute at the Avon Theatre to the plant with a yen for blood. It opened on Friday, May 31.
Director-choreographer Donna Feore’s second hit of the Fest’s 2019 Season has Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s frantic sci-fi spoof from 1982 getting crazee as André Morin — playing hapless florist’s clerk Seymour Krelborn — falls under the spell of a mysterious carnivorous plant known as Audrey II (voiced by Matthew G. Brown).
Audrey II is an alien exotic so powerful it winds up devouring most of the cast.
The plant is named for Seymour’s co-worker and secret crush Audrey (Gabi Epstein). Audrey is in an abusive relationship with Orin, a sadistic dentist channeling the Fonz (played by the magnificent Dan Chameroy). So the Audrey-Seymour romance never soars in the action, despite its beautiful tunes — “Somewhere That’s Green” in Act I (Audrey’s dream of a future she’ll never see) and Act II’s “Suddenly Seymour,” a duet with a beautiful melody and no future, either.
Feore finds a way to keep the slaughter’s balance between laughs and gasps just right. In one scene, Beal Secondary School grad, Henry Firmston plays a patient of Chameroy’s crazed dentist who flees (laugh) from a dental chair screened by a bloody-reddened sheet (gasp of horror). In another, Audrey II guilts Audrey into watering her (queasy laughter) in the same way the Big Bad Wolf lured Red Riding Hood into feeding range (gasp).
Meanwhile, the song hits just keep on coming.
The title tune introduces Camille Eanga-Selenge (Chiffon), Starr Domingue (Crystal) and Vanessa Sears (Ronnette) as the girl-group trio able to belt out songs paying homage to 1960s’ hit makers The Ronettes, Crystals, Chiffons, Shangri-Las etc. The trio’s fortunes flourish as Seymour finds fame by exploiting (and feeding) Audrey II in Mushnik’s flower shop.
Ashman and Menken’s loving spoofs of girl-group sounds and 1960s pop include “Da-Doo,” “Ya Never Know,” and “Call Back In The Morning.” The cast knows just how far to push the fun without the songs going over the top.
Eventually, Audrey II — with Brown supplying the funky grooves — makes its world-domination move.
After Audrey II swallows up some tasty human entrees, the ensemble gathers to sing a hard-rocking cautionary tale, “Don’t Feed The Plants.” The mindless pop songs in the earlier scenes have no place in this harsh and dangerous green world.
It is an amazing 2019 for Donna Feore at Stratford.
Her other smash hit this season is Billy Elliot the Musical at the Festival Theatre.
In this corner of Fuseland, Billy Elliot edges Little Shop because its noble British miners have to fight a real-life Big Bad Wolf, PM Margaret Thatcher.
In contrast, Little Shop’s Skid Row misfits only have a gigantic green killing machine to battle. Much less scary.
See them both. You must.
Among the grim and horrifying truths in Little Shop is that no one saves Audrey, Mushnik’s receptionist. Orin, the crazed dentist, beats her in private and insults her in public, yet nobody helps. True, Orin meets a just, although relatively painless end. But Audrey is scarred for the rest of her short life.
More pop violence:
A real-life monster of the girl-group era is record producer Phil Spector. Two of Little Shop’s trio have names paying tribute to two groups in Spector’s command — The Ronettes and The Crystals. He controlled the life of Ronettes’ lead singer Ronnie Spector during their six-year marriage. Those pretty pop hits hide horrors.
I looked it up for you:
Levi Stubbs of The Four Tops voiced the monstrous plant in the 1986 movie adaptation of the musical. It would be fun to hear deep-voiced Matthew G. Brown visit the Tops songbook.
Oh, yeah, the movie thing:
Better mention that the Ashman-Menkel musical is based on the 1960 Roger Corman horror flick.
Hear it for yourself:
In the programme, Toronto arts journalist Martin Morrow mentions a sonic similarity which is apparent in the run of the show. Audrey’s lovely/funny “Somewhere That’s Green” resurfaces for the co-composers in the Disney animated hit The Little Mermaid as Ariel’s Part Of Your World.
Visit stratfordfestival.ca for details, show times, and ticket info!
Feature photo of Starr Domingue as Crystal, André Morin as Seymour Krelborn and Vanessa Sears as Ronnette in Little Shop of Horrors photographed by Chris Young.