Horror in Hammonton: LITTLE SHOP Thrills Audiences at The Eagle

by Jeannine James

LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS is a comedy horror rock musical, by composer Alan Menken and writer Howard Ashman, about a hapless florist shop worker who raises a plant that feeds on human blood and flesh. A voice “not unlike God’s” recalls a time when the human race “suddenly encountered a deadly threat to its very existence”.  A quartet of 1960s’ street sets the scene (“Little Shop of Horrors”) and comment on the action throughout the show. Seymour Krelborn is a poor young man, an orphan living in an urban skid row. The down-and out skid row floral assistant becomes an overnight sensation when he discovers a strange and exotic plant he has named Audrey II (after the love of his life, Audrey). However, his plant is no normal plant. This plant enjoys a mysterious craving for fresh blood. Seymour starts by giving the plant his own blood, but, when people start dying, the plant wants more than a few drops of blood. Soon “Audrey II” grows into an ill-tempered, foul-mouthed, R&B-singing carnivore who offers him fame and fortune in exchange for feeding its growing appetite, finally revealing itself to be an alien creature poised for global domination!

The musical is based on the low-budget 1960 black comedy film THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, directed by Roger Corman, starring Jack Nicholson.  The book, lyrics and original direction were done by Howard Ashman . The music was composed by Alan Menken in the style of early 1960s rock and roll, doo-wop and early Motown.  Menken went on to redefine the animated musical film with Disney’s THE LITTLE MERMAID, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST and ALADDIN.

The musical had its world premiere on May 6, 1982 at the Workshop of the Players’ Art (WPA) Theatre. It opened off-Broadway at the Orpheum Theatre in Manhattan’s East Village on July 27, 1982. The production, directed by Ashman, with musical staging by Edie Cowan, was critically acclaimed and won several awards including the 1982–1983 New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Musical, the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Musical, and the Outer Critics Circle Award. The production ran for 5 years. When it closed on November 1, 1987, after 2,209 performances, it was the third-longest running musical and the highest-grossing production in off-Broadway history. Though a Broadway transfer had been proposed for the production, book writer Howard Ashman felt the show belonged where it was. The musical finally made its Broadway debut at the Virginia Theatre on October 2, 2003 as a revival.

Frankie Rowles as Seymour and Naomi Weiss as Audrey.

The Eagle Theatre’s production does the original proud.  The show is so easy to produce with its uni-set and small cast that it is done very frequently by regional, community and high school theatre groups; often poorly. I am thrilled to report that the Eagle Theatre’s production does not fall into that category but instead was extremely well done and makes for an enjoyable evening of theatre for all ages.

The show opens with the Ronettes, a doo-wop trio of street urchins who sing back up for the entire show and comment much as a greek chorus would on the action. Musical Director Tom Abruzzi chose to add a fourth girl which originally had me concerned that the intricate three part harmonies would suffer and lose balance, becoming the first victim of the show. I am pleased to report however, that the vocal balance was not affected. The harmonies were spotless and even the trained ear could not identify any changes to the original score. The subtle yet effective doo-wop and Motown inspired choreography under the direction of choreographer Kate Scharff enhanced the dramatic power of this quartet. The quartet is the true backbone of the show supporting the overall production without detracting from the story or principal characters.

The protagonist Seymour Krelbourn was played by Frankie Rowles. Dropping the traditional “nerd” Seymour, Rowles added a touch of darkness and allowed Seymour to enjoy his journey into darkness. Rowles was still a lovable character that connected with the audience and we found ourselves rooting for him to defeat the sadistic plant, win the girl and live happily ever after.

Naomi Weiss portayed the ditzy and confused Audrey who never learned how to be properly loved or appreciated. Weiss was flawless in the role. Her vocals were impeccable, showing both vulnerability and vocal power at exactly the right moments and her dramatic performance was above reproach. Audrey’s death scene was truly touching and I found myself actually buying in to her misguided reasoning that Seymour should feed her to the carnivorous plant so that should would finally be “Somewhere That’s Green” and that she would be with Seymour forever as he tends to the plant.

The carnivorous plant is played by two actors Franklin Anthony provides the vocals while Jerry McGrier manipulates the actual plant. These two actors have to work together as one to create the simultaneously murderous and comical alien plant. Anthony and McGrier were seamless in their performance. Special kudos extend to Anthony whose vocals were powerful and commanding exceltionally giving life to the violent plant.

Tim Rinehart portrayed Orin the dentist “& everyone else.” Rinehart is the one actor given carte blanche to completely overact and add the satiric icing on the cake for this production. His unnamed homeless man with simple one liners at the top of the show was absolutely hysterical stealing the entire opening number. The random shopper who discovers the “strange and exotic plant in the window” was equally over the top and entertaining. The brutally sadistic dentist fashioned after James Dean on laughing gas was hysterical. By the second act though I found that all of his minor characters were portrayed the same and became quite bored. The role is truly challenging as the actor is asked to completely change personas repeatedly in a manor of moments and maintain a true comic sense throughout. It is a dream role for a comic actor and one I would have loved to see a young Robin Williams tackle.

As always the stage direction of Ed Corsi and the vocal direction of Tom Abruzzi do not disappoint. I have come to learn that any show produced by this duo will feature hilarious performances and outstanding vocals. LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS is no exception.

The Eagle Theatre has consistently been producing high quality theatre in the small little town of Hammonton, New Jersey and this production of LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS is another great example of their work. My guests for this musical evening were my two children ages 8 and 5 who both loved the show, making it a musical comedy / horror for the entire family. I have since spent the last two days with them begging to listen to the soundtrack in the car, singing along and now know all the words. My 8 year felt it very important that I add his personal review of the show and I quote. “It was the most awesome show ever!!!!” Pack up the entire family and head over to see LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, just “Don’t Feed the Plant”.

Music by Alan Menken
Lyrics by Howard Ashmen
Book by Howard Ashman
Directed by Ed Corsi
Musical Direction by Tom Abruzzo
November 1-17, 2013
The Eagle Theatre
208 Vine Street – Downtown
Hammonton, NJ 08037

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