It takes a bit of pruning to untangle the creative vines entwined around Little Shop of Horrors. It started as a 1960 B-grade horror comedy shot in two days by director Roger Corman. That spawned a 1982 Off-Broadway musical with book and lyrics by Howard Ashman and music by Alan Menken, who then teamed with director Frank Oz on a 1986 film adaptation. That film, starring Rick Moranis, Ellen Greene and Steve Martin in the, um, meatiest roles, is the version of the story most people are familiar with. Which means some members of the audience at Paramount Theatre’s new production of the 1982 musical are in for a macabre surprise, because the ending of the theatrical version is much darker than the one horrified test screening audiences forced Oz to deliver in his film.
But even if you’ve only ever seen the film version of the musical, you’ll leave the Paramount understanding that this here is the allegorically, tastefully gory good stuff. Because what at first blush seems to be a simple story of boy meets girl, boy feeds girl’s abusive lover to a carnivorous mutant plant, boy wins girl’s heart is revealed to be an entertaining, no-holds-barred take on the evils of late-stage capitalism and just how far it will drive nebbishy amateur botanists to succeed.
This production is blessed with incredible sets (Jeffrey D. Kmiec), costumes (Yvonne Miranda) and blood-thirsty puppets (created by Skylight Music Theatre in collaboration with Jesse Gaffney and the Paramount Prop Department, with consultation by Simone Tegge and Mike Oleon). The titular floral shop on a 1960s Skid Row rotates to reveal a flea-bitten interior soon to be given lush new life and unlimited customers (including a commission to outfit all the floats in the Rose Bowl Parade) thanks to Audrey II, a charismatic plant nurtured and cross-bred by shop clerk Seymour Krelborn that demands to be fed large quantities of fresh human flesh (and delicious blood) as it flowers into a horticultural hellbeast.
Seymour would do anything to win the love of his colleague Audrey, the diabolical plant’s namesake. The only problem is, she’s dating an abusive dentist and, well, it’s funny how sometimes two problems can present elegant, if bloody, solutions to each other.
This is great material for broad comedy. Jack Ball (Seymour), Gene Weygandt (not-so-lovable shop owner Mr. Mushnik), Russell Mernagh (Orin Scrivello, the sadistic dentist) and especially Teressa LaGamba (Audrey) and Je’Shaun Jackson (the voice of Audrey II) don’t miss an opportunity to go big so we’ll go home laughing. Jackson perfectly plays the plant’s malevolent self-regard during “Feed Me (Git It)” and “Suppertime,” while LaGamba shows off her tremendous pipes on “Somewhere That’s Green” and the iconic “Suddenly, Seymour,” her duet with Ball, with whom she displays convincing romantic chemistry. And the entire company delivers cynical shivers as they sneer their way through the powerful “The Meek Shall Inherit.”
A few minor staging issues seem to have some characters teleport through the shop wall as they transition from the back alley to the plant’s inner sanctum, and it’d be nice to see Mr. Mushnik’s exploitative ways underlined a bit more forcefully, but this is a well-directed effort from Landree Fleming. The ending, with a rollicking, full-cast rendition of the cautionary “Finale (Don’t Feed the Plants),” may lead you to finish your garden weeding this fall with extra ferocity.
Little Shop of Horrors runs through October 15 at the Paramount Theatre.
Photo by Liz Lauren