For my money, and for as silly and irreverent as it truly is, there is almost no musical more difficult to pull off well than Little Shop of Horrors. Equal parts comedy and tragedy, camp and melodrama, it straddles so many lines that it’s nearly impossible to hit the right balance. Play it too hard for laughs, and it won’t be funny. Work too hard to enhance the horror, and it won’t be fun. If everyone from the director on down does not have a crystal-clear vision for what they’re trying to accomplish, the end result ends up feeling a bit … messy.
This is a pretty accurate word to describe the new production of Little Shop just launched by Trinity Rep, a show with some brilliant moments interspersed with some head-scratching ones, leading to a theater-going experience that is somehow satisfying, yet leaves you wanting more.
Little Shop (in case you haven’t been exposed to the original B-movie, the musical adaptation of that movie, the film adaptation of that musical, or even the occasionally mounted theatrical interpretation of the film adaptation OF the original musical) is the story of Seymour Krelborn (Jude Sandy), a nerdy, awkward orphan who works at the failing flower shop of Mr. Mushnik (Stephen Berenson) with his love interest (and bully’s punching bag) Audrey (Rebecca Gibel). All of their lives (seemingly) start looking up when Seymour finds a “strange and interesting” plant he calls Audrey II (Voice by Rachael Warren, puppeteering by Ted Chylack). This fascinating specimen grants Seymour fame, riches and even the girl, as long as he keeps it well fed, and its food of choice … is human blood.
As a musical, Little Shop has a lot going for it. It was written and composed by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, the same creative duo behind The Little Mermaid (am I the only one who thinks that “Part of Your World” sounds almost plagiarized from Little Shop‘s “Somewhere That’s Green?”), and they clearly had a blast putting this show together. The songs are fun, and funny, and often deceptively sophisticated, as the audience is whipped from giddiness to disgust to empathy to horror in equal measures.
But as I stated earlier, with a show this gleefully stupid, the success or failure of any given production rests on the balance that’s struck between comedy and camp. While all of the performers do admirable work diving wholly into their roles, Trinity Rep’s new production does some things particularly well, and some that leave much to be desired. Let’s start with the positives:
The Set (and Setting): When I first heard that this production was to be set in Providence, I was afraid it was going to feel forced and unnecessary, but I was happily wrong on that count. Set designer Sara Brown has constructed a beautiful set that evokes both ’50s America and a gritty “Skid Row” vibe, making particularly ingenious use of dumpsters throughout. The “Rhode Island-ing” of the show was kept to a painted mural (and a few perfectly added one-liners). which gave us all a good laugh without overshadowing the rest of the show.
The Puppets: The real stars of any production of Little Shop are the puppets, and the examples we get to see here (provided by Monkey Boys Productions) are simply phenomenal. Though I was a particular fan of the second iteration of Audrey Two (where some clever costuming allowed Seymour to play both hero and antagonist at the same time), each version of the plant found a way to appear charming and sweet, even as its evil intentions became more and more plain.
Audrey II (The Voice): While many of the performers in this production showed off excellent singing voices (notably Gibel’s Audrey, and the fantastic trio of Carla Martinez’s Chiffon, Elexis Morton’s Crystal and Kedren Spencer’s Ronnette), the most unique and interesting performance belonged to Rachael Warren as the voice (and human embodiment) of Audrey II. I’m pretty sure that every production I’ve ever seen of this show before now featured a male (or at least masculine) voice, exuding menace with every word. But Warren’s interpretation – both in song and in dialogue – was somehow both sensual and petulant, creating a fascinating dynamic for Seymour to have to resist, and ultimately succumb to.
And now, the not so good:
The Sound: The few technical hiccups that occurred on opening night were very forgivable (and more than made up for by the sincerity and enthusiasm of cast and crew), but of far more concern is the overall audio experience. Whether it’s the proportions of the room itself, or the microphones being used, or something else altogether, I found the performers difficult to hear under normal circumstances. But when the lyrics came quickly, or with two sets sung over each other, it was nearly impossible to make anything out. When the lights came up for intermission, I heard someone above me complain that they only heard 50% of what was being said, and that might have been a generous number.
Audrey II (The Choice): While I applaud the decision to cast the plant with a sultry female voice, I was much less satisfied with putting the actress herself on stage while she did it. Doing so gave us a few fun moments (shaking salt on a soon-to-be victim was funny for sure), but every moment we spent watching her was one where the puppet was going unused, and that is just a shame. Again, the puppets are the real stars of the show, and it was a shame to see it lying still when it could have been stealing the show for itself and the puppeteer working it from the inside.
Overall, Trinity Rep’s Little Shop of Horrors is a very fun, if somewhat flawed, production. But given the near impossibility of doing it perfectly, this just might be the very best anyone can hope for.
Trinity Rep presents Little Shop of Horrors through May 12. 201 Washington St, PVD. Call 401-351-4242 or visit TrinityRep.com for tickets.