Trinity's "Little Shop": Another Tale of Two Tendrils

The Cast of "Little Shop of Horrors"
(photo: Mark Turek)

Beware all living things: Little Shop of Horrors is back (at Trinity Rep in Providence), with a vengeance, as it was some years ago when another local company presented it. Now as then, attend the tale of Audrey II. She’s green and mean, this cousin of the Venus fly trap. A true pistil-packing momma, she’s the horticultural star of this former off-Broadway hit (of the 1982 season, with a five year run, winning the New York Drama Critics and Outer Circle Critics Best Musical Awards), based on a much-beloved, campy cult black and white 1960 film by Director Roger Corman (the king of the low-budget B movies) and Screenwriter Charles Griffith. It ultimately became a 1986 film musical, and was revived on Broadway in 2003. Most prophetically, it was the first mega success of novice creators Alan Menken (score) and the late Howard Ashman (book and lyrics), who would go on to “The Little Mermaid” and “Beauty and the Beast”. Perhaps you’ve heard of them.

Rebecca Gibel & Jude Sandy in "Little Shop of Horrors"
(photo: Mark Turek)

Little Shop”, only their second work together, was a loving tribute in farce to the horror movie genre, spoofing 60’s rock and roll, doo-wop, and Motown sound, television sitcoms, and several other targets. Ashman’s book and lyrics were filled with intentionally outrageous puns (for example, referring to the character of a sadistic dentist as the “leader of the plaque”). Some of his other references (“Father Knows Best”, “The Donna Reed Show”, “December Bride” and even “Howdy Doody”) may not resonate with younger audience members today, but most of their fang-in-cheek humor is timeless, if treated with affection in the right hands. One feared the worst when hearing Director Tyler Dobrowsky decided to set the story not in Skid Row in New York but in 1960's Providence “because...Rhode Islanders like to see themselves on stage” and have an “optimistic underdog identity”. That said, there were just a few such references (for example, calling out Cranston) which didn't affect the story much.

Which may have worked. His respect for this work shows in his faithful treatment, balanced with a considerable number of original and imaginative touches, such as a visual homage to a famous blonde. He's aided by the Music Direction by Esther Zabinski, with the usual superb technical credits: Scenic Designer Sara Brown, colorful Costume Designer Andrew Jean, Sound Designer Peter Sasha Hurowitz (which needs to be adjusted when solos are involved) and Lighting Designer Dan Scully, not to mention the Choreography by yon Tande.

Ted Chylack & Rebecca Gibel in "Little Shop of Horrors"
(photo: Mark Turek)

Ah, and that cast. Seymour (Jude Sandy) is the ultimate nerd working in a struggling flower shop; his innocent mimicking of his co-worker Audrey’s accent (living in “the guttah”) is a hoot. Rebecca Gibel plays Audrey (the part played so memorably by Ellen Greene in both the original production and the film musical) with the perfect tone of the clueless bimbo with her boyfriend Orin the Dentist (Stephen Thorne). Thorne was a real standout though the dental segment went on a bit, becoming way too long in the tooth. Other standouts were the three “urchins”, Chiffon (Carla Martinez), Crystal (Elexis Morton), and Ronnette (Kedren Spencer), a sort of Greek chorus. Also on hand was Mr. Mushnik, the owner of the flower shop (Stephen Berenson). And then there was “Audrey II” (in the largest mistep, wierdly using a live actor, Rachel Warren, who felt like the lead character in “Spider Woman”, nearly ruining the balance of the sweet and sour story, rather than just having Ted Chylack as the puppeteer), thus also losing the hilarious touch by the original authors' depiction of a “female” plant voiced by a deep bass. There was also an Ensemble of street people (Timothy Crowe and Janice Duclos among them). And there's that unforgettable villain’s cry, “Feed me!”, oxymoronically, from a hysterically hammy plant. How “Audrey II” miraculously appears, unites Seymour and Audrey, grows, and forever changes the lives of most of the cast, is best left for audience members to discover. Suffice it to say that Gibel alone is worth the price of admission; her Audrey is plain priceless.

Ted Chylack & Jude Sandy in "Little Shop of Horrors"
(photo: Mark Turek)

A disclaimer might be in order here: “Little Shop” is one of this reviewer’s all-time favorite shows. Thus it was a relief to find it recreated and refreshed by trust in the material, which truly paid off when it did so, despite the huge mistake of the choice to portray the plant anthropomorphically. Those familiar only with the film musical version will note some differences; here there is no masochistic dental patient (as in both film versions), and, most significantly, a darker ending. Audrey II is about to take over the world. As one character puts it earlier in the show, “you’re not in Kansas anymore”. She is, after all, an omnivore, devouring actors, audiences, theater critics....

One piece of sage advice sung at the end of the show (performed through May 12th) bears repeating: “Don’t feed the plants!”


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