By Liz Nicholls, .ca
If there ever was a musical that makes a case for smart people taking a dumb movie in hand and re-potting it — a strategy that’s backfired elsewhere with depressing regularity this century — it’s got to be Little Shop of Horrors.
Yes, the daffy, sassy, appealing 1982 musical that Howard Ashman and Alan Menken coaxed out of the soil of Roger Corman’s super-shlocky 1960 B-movie, brought the Citadel’s opening night crowd to its feet to cheer the triumph of vegetation over urban decay. And in the Citadel/ Vancouver Arts Club co-production directed by Ashlie Corcoran, the toothsome and bloodthirsty perennial Audrey II does seem, in the startlingly booming voice and vocal bite of Madeleine Suddaby, entirely capable of world domination.
The musical tells the Faustian tale of nebbish Seymour (Tenaj Williams), a klutzy florist’s assistant who labours away in Mr. Mushnik’s failing Skid Row flower shop. When this chronic underachiever accidentally cultivates an unusual potted plant that’s a big customer draw, it seems that success is finally at hand. Surely Mr. Mushnik (the excellent Ashley Wright) will let up on treating him like crap; surely his crush, Seymour’s much-abused and -bruised co-worker Audrey (Synthia Yussuf), his match in low self-esteem, will be impressed. A star botanical innovator is born.
Yeah, yeah, there’s a sinister downside: Seymour’s inadvertent discovery that the plant feeds on human blood. And when his own supply dwindles, Seymour is lured to look farther afield, if you take my meaning. There’s a trio of narrative interventionists, a Skid Row Greek chorus, if you like, of upwardly mobile street urchins who are an homage to vintage girl-group pop, with names to match: Crystal (Ali Watson), Ronnette (Ivy Charles) and Chiffon (Rochelle Laplante)
The charm of Little Shop sprouts in the way the sci-fi musical comedy is wrapped by its creators in faux-vintage sass and wit. The doo-wop/ R&B/ ‘60s rock score is accompanied by a crack six-piece band led by Ruth Alexander. The choreography, witty and allusive, is by Gianna Vacirca. It’s a tricky kind of theatrical horticulture, this oddball combination of wistful and horrifying, the wide-eyed and the snarky. Little Shop is affectionate about shlock. And the playfully cheeky chorus, who annotate and intervene from time to time, consistently capture the spirit of the venture. And so does Williams as the increasingly beleaguered nouveau-capitalist Seymour.
But there’s something loud, brassy, and hard-sell about the production in its first act (at least on opening night). Synthia Yusuf, for example, who has great pipes, plays Audrey for comedy in its opening scenes, in a heightened performance that leans into comical grimaces and postures. It has the (no doubt unintended) effect of making fun of the character. And the seminal number Somewhere That’s Green in which Audrey reveals her version of the American dream — “a matchbox of our own/, a fence of real chain link … I cook like Betty Crocker/ And I look like Donna Reed”) is funny and beautifully sung, but without the extra and endearing nuance of heartbreak and innocence the performance discovers in Act II.
Similarly, the big opening ensemble number Skid Row (“downtown, where the cabs don’t stop; downtown, where the food is slop”), a witty removal of any sentimental residue attached to life on Skid Row, loses something of its kooky off-centred-ness when its so hard-driven. It’s also a bit over-amplified, which makes it a bit of a challenge to hear Ashman’s lyrics.
It all comes on a bit strong (honourable exception to the Act I tango Mushnik and Son in which Mr. Mushnik adopts his newly successful assistant). Since the cast are all very accomplished actor/singers, the show settles into a more satisfying palette of sass and comedy, and hence charm in Act II. Little Shop works best when it stays in touch with its Off-Off Broadway origins.
In addition to Audrey II, the character who really should come on strong is Orin, Audrey’s swaggering abusive biker/dentist boyfriend (“I know Seymour’s the greatest, but I’m dating a semi-sadist,” as Audrey puts it). As the ultimate dental psycho John Ullyatt makes one of the great comic posturing entrances in Mr. Mushnik’s shop. And the performance makes a meal (a root canal?) of the horror of dentistry and the gruesomely comic scene with Seymour (fight choreography by Jonathan Hawley Purvis) in which Orin Scrivello D.D.S gets his. You’d want to call it a classic of its kind, except that it’s probably the only one of its kind. Anyhow, this is a terrific, detailed, and agile performance.
The bland costumes (Carmen Alatorre) don’t exactly reek of urban grit or period pizzaz. But Beyata Hackborn’s set design creates a kind of storybook Skid Row, all wonky angles with moveable tenement fronts, windows in which singers appear, and a revolve for inside and outside takes on Mr. Mushnik’s shop. And Audrey II with her (its?) menacing velvet tentacles, expressively manipulated by puppeteer Braydon Dowler-Coltman, is a creation to be reckoned with — a sort of outsized lava lamp pod that turns out to be all mouth. Scarrrry.
Savvy Sci-fi musical comedies with ridiculously catchy music and love stories, a little scent of capitalist satire, and a lean toward the vegetarian (don’t feed the plants), aren’t easy to come by. This isn’t an entirely satisfying production, but it’s a fun go-for-the-gusto evening out.
Little Shop of Horrors
Theatre: Citadel/ Vancouver Arts Club Theatre Company
Created by: Howard Ashman and Alan Menken
Directed by: Ashlie Corcoran
Starring: Tenaj Williams, Synthia Yusuf, John Ullyatt, Ashley Wright, Madeleine Suddaby, Ivy Charles, Rochelle Laplante, Ali Watson
Where: Citadel Shoctor Theatre
Running: through Nov 19
Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com,