Stage Door Review

Little Shop of Horrors

Saturday, June 8, 2019

✭✭✭✭

music by Alan Menken, book & lyrics by Howard Ashman, directed by Donna Feore

Stratford Festival, Avon Theatre, Stratford

May 31-November 9, 2019

Chorus: “Shing-a-ling, what a creepy thing

to be happening!

Shang-a-lang, feel the sturm

and drang in the air.”

With Little Shop of Horrors the Stratford Festival has obviously sought to cash in on its amazing success with The Rocky Horror Show last year by choosing another musical based on a cult sci-fi movie. If it was banking on another hit, it’s got it. Donna Feore’s production is probably the best and most elaborate one you’re ever likely see of this little gem. There is no weak link in the cast and Menken and Ashman’s quirky songs have never been better sung.

The musical is based on the 1960 low-budget movie The Little Shop of Horrors by Roger Corman. Book writer Howard Ashman eliminates characters from the movie and cleverly tightens the story. In the musical Mr. Mushnik (Steve Ross) owns a florist shop on Skid Row in New York City (obviously at time when there was only one place that could be called Skid Row). Seymour Krelborn (André Morin), whom he took in as an orphan, is his diligent shop assistant. Audrey (Gabi Epstein) is his other not-so-diligent assistant, since she frequently arrives having been beaten up by her sadistic bike-riding dentist boyfriend Orin Scrivello (Dan Chameroy). It is one of Ashman’s best ideas in tightening the script to integrate the otherwise detached dentist subplot of the movie into the main plot.

Mushnik is so downcast by his lack of business, he decides he will close the store. Seymour, however, has been experimenting with buying and creating unusual plants and he thinks that putting one of them in store window will draw in customers. Seymour happens to have bought an especially strange sort of Venus flytrap recently that suddenly appeared during a total solar eclipse that he thinks will attract attention. He has dubbed it Audrey II in honour of Audrey, the girl to whom he is too shy to confess his love. 

Seymour’s plan works. The only catch is he can’t figure out what the plant lives on. When he accidentally cuts his finger and Audrey II turns towards it, he realizes that its favourite food is human blood. Once Audrey II grows larger and develops the power to speak, she tells him that human flesh and blood are what she needs. In a parody of Faust’s pact withe Mephistopheles, Audrey II promises Seymour fame and fortune if only he will supply her with a steady diet of fresh human meat. Seymour agrees to the plan because he thinks it will make him more attractive to Audrey.

When Dr. Scrivello accidentally asphyxiates himself with too much nitrous oxide, he becomes Audrey II’s first full dinner. Audrey II grows so much that fame and fortune do come to Seymour. The question is “How long is Seymour willing to kill constantly to sustain Audrey II’s growing diet and maintain his growing fame?”

As befits the setting of the original 1960 movie, Alan Menken’s score imitates the music of the 1950s and early ‘60s. Menken and Ashman give the musical a chorus of three women who, like a comic parody of a Greek chorus, narrate and comment upon the action. The three are Ronette (Vanessa Sears) (misspelled as “Ronnette in the programme), Crystal (Starr Domingue) and Chiffon (Camille Eanga-Selenge), whose names each reflect the names of the Black girl groups of the time whose songs Menken and Ashman emulate. 

From the title song to “Da-Doo” and “Ya Never Know” plus their backup singing in many of the other songs, Menken and Ashman get the typical girl group sound and lyrics exactly right. Donna Feore, director and choreographer has the three impeccably recreate typical synchronized girl group moves of the period. The result is that this coy, flirtatious yet admonitory group of equally fine singers provides a solid foundation of musical and stylistic excellence upon which the success of the entire show firmly rests. 

André Morin, in his first major role in a musical at Stratford, gives a superb performance. He is very funny at portraying Seymour as a good-willed but hapless schlemiel. Yet, he allows his character to grow in complexity with the plot revealing such undesirable qualities as greed and vindictiveness alongside budding love. He is very wise not to depict Seymour’s ethical dilemma as comic since, even if it involves a bargain with a plant, the dilemma is still real and is part of the show’s darkening mood. Morin has a pleasant high tenor which he shows off to the best advantage in a song like “Suddenly, Seymour” in which he professes his love to Audrey,

Gabi Epstein also portrays Audrey, who could easily be dismissed as simply a ditzy shop assistant, into a complex figure. Though the show begins as a comedy, Epstein does not play Audrey’s position in an abusive relationship for laughs. It would be terrible if she did. She has a strong bright voice that soars in her main song “Somewhere That's Green”. She sings it with such passion that she reveals, in what is a satiric view of uniformity as one of the pleasures of suburbia, a very persuasive view of what must have made suburbia so appealing to so many other people at the time.

Steve Ross is fully in his element at the crotchety Mushnik. Ross shows that greed and exploitation lurk under his kindly old man shtick and Mushnik’s desperate ploy to keep Seymour from leaving just proves how far he will go not to lose his sudden wealth. He sings and dances so well in his duet wth Seymour in “Mushnik and Son” that he received one of the show’s loudest ovations.

The flashiest role in the show is that of sadistic biker/dentist Orin Scrivello, who Dan Chameroy plays as a combination of Elvis Presley, Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson (who played the dentist’s masochistic patient in the movie). His constant used of portable nitrous oxide to get high also reminds one of Dennis Hopper’s character Frank Booth in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986). Chameroy manages to meld these diverse influences into one crazy, outrageous character who strikes us intentionally as both humorous and frightening. As if his unbridled delivery of Scrivello’s entry song “Dentist!” weren’t enough to knock us out with his talent, Chameroy later appears as three different dubious characters, after super-quick changes, all offering Seymour money and fame.

Matthew G. Brown provides the big bass voice of the fully grown Audrey II with authentic Motown riffs in songs like “Feed Me” and “Suppertime”. Audrey II itself is a fantastic creation that takes up nearly hslf the florist shop and requires four puppeteers (Henry Firmston, Evangelina Kambites, Jordan Mah and Jason Sermonia) working in close coordination to manipulate. 

The primary feature of Michael Gianfrancesco’s set is the dingy octagonal florist shop surrounded by four curved sliding walls. Two of the walls open to reveal the attractive interior of the shop, but Feore is not very strict in deciding whether the opening is a cutaway view or an actual entrance since she indiscriminately uses it as both. The three-woman chorus are supposedly grade school dropouts, but Dana Osborne has provided them with flashy new 1950’s-style outfit every time the appear.

The fact that Little Shop of Horrors ran Off-Broadway for five years is what brought Alan Menken and Howard Ashman to the attention of the Disney Corporation where their next project was The Little Mermaid (1989). The duo’s facility at musical and lyrical invention is already clear in Little Shop and is what makes it artistically a much more substantial musical that The Rocky Horror Show, no matter how much sheer silly fun that was. Little Shop is no less fun and is less reliant on shock for its laughs and is even willing to go very dark when its needs to. Given its full complement of outstanding performances from singer and puppeteers alike, Little Shop deserves to be Stratford’s next big hit. 

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photos: Gabi Epstein as Audrey and André Morin as Seymour, © 2019 Chris Young; Dan Chameroy as Dr. Scrivello, Starr Domingue as Crystal, Vanessa Sears as Ronette and Camille Eanga-Selenge as Chiffon, © 2019 Cylla von Tiedemann; Steve Ross as Mr. Mushnik and André Morin as Seymour, © 2019 Cylla von Tiedemann.

For tickets, visit www.stratfordfestival.ca.