Take the campy, low-budget horror movies of the 1950s, mix with the catchy doo-wop music of the same era, and add a dash of tongue-in-cheek self-deprecation, and you have LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS,, the musical adaptation of the 1960 Roger Corman movie. Playful Theater Productions’ LITTLE SHOP at Kelsey Theater really proves how a strong set of actors can take this “little” show to the next level.
The premise is simple: A man-eating plant who takes over the world. Unlikely fodder for a musical, but the results are surprising and hilarious. The audience follows a simple love story of a nerd, Seymour Krelborn (Jarad Benn), and a ditzy, lovable ingenue, Audrey (Maria Aromando), as they’re brought together by a very unusual plant. The star-crossed lovers work at a failing flower shop on Skid Row, run by the unflappable Mr. Mushnik (Arnold Aromando). Audrey ignores her feelings for Seymour for much of the first act in favor of the abusive, sadistic Orin Scrivello, DDS (Sean Dowling, who takes on the roles of the entire company). Seymour’s plant, Audrey II, flounders until Seymour pricks himself on a rose thorn and realizes that the plant doesn’t want sunshine, good earth, or spray-bottle food — it craves blood.
After this realization, it’s a bit of a roller coaster of fame and fortune for our friends at Mushnik’s Skid Row Florists. Predictably, though, if you’ve seen any movies of this particular genre, Audrey II gets a voice of his own (Timothy Walton) and strikes out on a path for world domination. All the while, the action is narrated by the sassy chorus of Crystal (Tia Brown), Ronnette (Cathryn Hardy), and Chiffon (Nikema Missouri), who help their friends on Skid Row while progressing the plotline for the audience.
Frank Ferrara directs with the appropriate amount of camp and charm, and the actors demonstrate this in spades. Sean Dowling transitions amusingly between all the characters of the ensemble, including a dowdy woman from Time Magazine, but has his best moments as Orin Scrivello despite some jumbling of lines. Tia Brown, Cathryn Hardy, and Nikema Missouri played off each other expertly as the chorus girls, harmonizing beautifully and bringing up the energy of the show. Missouri’s voice, Hardy’s facial cues, and Brown’s indomitable stage presence made the threesome a particularly high point of the performance. They’re at their peak during “The Meek Shall Inherit,” when their voices blend seamlessly.
It’s impossible to ignore the stellar performances of Jarad Benn as Seymour and Maria Aromando as Audrey. Benn is at once adorable, pathetic, and ambitious, and his chemistry with his fellow actors makes you root for him throughout the show. His wistful glances into his future channel Rick Moranis in a way that’s a fitting tribute, not a ripoff. Aromando radiates on the stage, combining her clear, resonant voice with Audrey’s low-rent accent and big dreams — all while in four-inch platform heels. Her turn in “Somewhere That’s Green” struck the perfect balance between heartbreaking and hilarious, describing her ideal home of plastic-covered furniture and a twelve-inch TV. It was obvious from their huge ovation that the audience loved her too. And her real-life father, Arnold, stole the stage every time he was on it, complete with frustrated Yiddish mutterings under his breath. His plea to adopt Seymour during “Mushnik and Son,” and the accompanying “traditional” dance, had the audience in stitches.
It can be hoped that some of the technical foibles that littered the performance will be remedied by their second weekend. Microphones were riddled with static (distracting especially from an otherwise powerful rendition of “Suddenly Seymour”), lighting seemed to cast excessive shadows on the actors’ faces, and there were practical issues with the set. The two larger versions of Audrey II seemed asleep at the switch; while Timothy Walton’s vocal performance was incredibly well done, both puppets’ movements seemed awkwardly out of synch. Additionally, Seymour’s final scene was made unintentionally funny and uncomfortable by the full-body appearance of a small stagehand “regurgitating” Seymour’s weapon.
All that said, LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS is an entertaining, laugh-out-loud show that will have you humming the songs for hours afterwards. These fine actors provide a lot of enjoyment for the audience, and ask that you take with you only one piece of advice: Don’t feed the plants!
LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS
by Howard Ashman (book and lyrics) and Alan Menken (music)
Directed by Frank Ferrara
October 19 – 28, 2012
at Mercer County Community College
1200 Old Trenton Road
West Windsor, NJ 08550