Back in 2014, while working with a theater’s production The Rocky Horror Show, I thought about how someone would successfully stage this show without disappointing anybody. Sure, on one hand, it’s Rocky Horror, the uncontested champion of cult appeal; if there’s a staging or screening of it somewhere there’s no doubt that fans will crawl from every conceivable crevice to don their fishnet stockings and buy a ticket. They want to throw rice, shout out lines, and dance the Time Warp in the aisles when the time comes. We know what to expect when we go to see Rocky Horror. And yet the familiarity and expectation are the show’s greatest challenges. How do you stage a production of a show in which the audience has certain expectations to the staging and depiction of the show while simultaneously differentiating yourself enough to create more than just “another Rocky Horror”? It then occurred to me that Rocky Horror, while the front runner for this trend, is by no means the only show that seems to repeat itself with each staging and iteration. Some characters and tropes have become so hardwired into our cultural subconscious that to see them depicted in any other manner feels wrong. And yet, as is often the case, it’s when we challenge these preconceived notions that our interests are rekindled.
Based on the film by Roger Corman, Little Shop of Horrors by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken is the famous horror-comedy musical following meek, nebbish Seymour Krelborn, a poor employee at a down-and-out flower shop who gains fame and notoriety for himself and the store by showcasing a new breed of flytrap dubbed Audrey II. However, he quickly discovers that the plant can only survive by consuming fresh blood, and as the plant grows larger so does its appetite.
Right off the bat Matthew Burnett’s (director) production deviates from the typical Little Shop production, traditionally staged with eight actors plus however many puppeteers are needed for Audrey II, by tacking on a trio of male chorus (Mike De Anda, M. Creighton Moench, and Mark Jespersen, dubbed the “Do-Wop Boys and Little Shop Ensemble” in the program) to the typical, soulful female trio of Ronette, Crystal, and Chiffon (Mallory Hoerning, Emily Prezan, and Anne Violette respectively). The choice to add on to the chorus had its positive and negative effects on the production, but more on that later. For now, it’s the differentiation from most Little Shop productions I wish to focus on. While in some respects, The City Theatre’s Little Shop cuts from the same cloth as past productions I’ve seen, but what they alter is at once subtle yet (if you’re familiar with the show) drastic. Particularly, Craig McKerley’s depiction of Seymour Krelborn.
As a character, Seymour is meant to be meek, nerdy, self-deprecating, but also earnest, good-natured, and hopeful. However, nearly every actor/director I’ve seen portray Seymour does so in a similar manner; they make him small, mousy, and don the largest, thickest pair of glasses imaginable. In short, they’re all trying to recreate Rick Moranis from the 1986 film adaptation of Little Shop. Of course, this being the same character all of these actors have depicted there are bound to be similarities, but much of the Little Shop character roster has become archetypes. So where does this leave McKerley’s performance? It’s clear that he, whether through his choices or Burnett’s direction, has taken some influence from the Seymour-Moranis archetype, and yet he stands out as the most unique Seymour Krelborn I’ve seen onstage. Why? One word. Intimidation. On top of being the strongest singer in the cast, McKerley is a change of pace visually by being the biggest cast member onstage in height and size. He mostly acts affable and innocent, and appears as such. However, in some key moments of the plot McKerley dons one of the meanest glares I’ve seen. This Seymour isn’t bumbling his way into incriminating success; his actions are clearly dimming his sense of morality. He lets his temper flare and isn’t afraid to appear threatening. To discuss further would reveal major plot elements, so for those of you haven’t seen Little Shop in any form…
THE FOLLOWING PARAGRAPH CONTAINS SIGNIFICANT SPOILERS!
The moment the direction of McKerley’s performance struck me was during the Act II song “Suppertime”, in which Seymour tricks his employer and adoptive father Mr. Mushnik (LeRoy Nienow) into going inside the plant to be eaten alive. It’s typically depicted as a last-ditch act of desperation to avoid imprisonment, often paired with reluctance and dread. However, McKerley maintained dominance throughout the scene as Nienow, visibly terrified, confronted him. To further emphasize this Seymour’s sinister nature, as Nienow nears Audrey II’s mouth he is viciously stabbed by Seymour and thrown inside rather than simply being consumed by the plant. It was a nice touch, and a vicious turn on a typically docile character. However, there was another, similar choice I must question. Before the finale, as Audrey (Lauren Beach) is dying in Seymour’s arms he proceeds to slowly choke her to death as she sings “Somewhere That’s Green (Reprise)”. One wonders whether he was trying to end her suffering or shorten his own. Either way it was a surprisingly dark turn for an already dark depiction in this horror musical. Despite the occasional chuckle from the audience during the grim tableau, the end result was somewhat uncomfortable to watch.
END OF SPOILERS!
While McKerley did enough to escape the Seymour archetype I can’t say the same for his co-stars. Similar to the recreations of Rick Moranis that plague Little Shop productions I’ve never seen a depiction of Audrey that isn’t visually and vocally trying to impersonate Ellen Greene from the 1986 film, and Beach’s performance is no exception. Likewise, Nienow’s Mr. Mushnik can most simply be defined as incredibly Jewish, almost to the point of caricature. Neither Beach nor Nienow escape the expected role and engage the audience. Both felt generally lackluster with one exception for each. For Niewnow it was the aforementioned “Suppertime” sequence, though that could have been for the unique take alone. For Beach it was her duet with McKerley in “Suddenly Seymour” where production’s the overarching emphasis on Audrey’s abuse at the hands of her sadistic boyfriend come into light. There are subtle moments of Beach withdrawing from McKerley’s affection that strongly reflected the visible apprehensions of victims of domestic abuse. The whole sequence was rather nice, save for one moment in which Beach was too far stage-right for the spotlight to hit her (though the tech crew improvised a solution quickly enough).
Now back to the chorus. While emphasis remained on the trio of ladies as it normally does, the inclusion of the men threw off some of the charms of the show such as having the actor who plays Orin Scravello play nearly every extra. I wouldn’t bring this up except that the men who covered these bit parts were a little too goofy in their depictions of these one-scene characters, even for a musical comedy. The ladies did a fine job, and would have been more than enough to cover the whole chorus. However, this crew was tasked with the oft-repeated set change of concealing the flower shop with a curtain to conceal set changes. The changes were laborious, and it was increasingly evident that they were struggling to move the walls and curtains. But if there was one damning element to Little Shop it was, as is often the case in musicals, the sound. Nearly every scene was held back by some trouble with projection. It originally popped up in the “Prologue (Little Shop of Horrors)” in which the harmonies between the ladies and gentlemen of the chorus felt off. At first I wrote it off as a few misplaced vocals within the sextet, but similar issues occurred throughout. Beach and Nienow both struggled sending their voices to the back of the audience, and the speakers sometimes failed to enunciate Alex Koch’s (Audrey II’s voice). There were also numerous incidents of the orchestra drowning out the vocalists making their lines difficult to comprehend (and keep in mind I’m quite familiar with Little Shop’s soundtrack). The roughest sound moment came from the intro to “Ya Never Know” in which a radio interview wasn’t even audible. Little Shop is most certainly riddled with some frustrating hiccups and dull performances that continue to add up throughout the show, and become increasingly difficult to ignore. So why do I still recommend this show? I’ll tell you.
Shows like Little Shop, Rocky Horror, Putnam County Spelling Bee, etc. may all share the same curse of coming with expectations on how they’re supposed to depict their characters, but all of them are also undeniably fun. Not just for the audience but for the cast too. I’ve never seen a production of Little Shop where the cast doesn’t appear to be greatly enjoying themselves onstage throughout, and The City Theatre’s is no different. There’s something infectious about actors’ mirth. Some shows are so undeniably fun that it draws the joy out of everyone in the room. Furthermore, I have to hand it to Andy Berkovsky for creating four unique Audrey II puppets, all of which controlled differently. You’d be lucky to find any other production of Little Shop that utilizes more than two Audrey II’s. And speaking of Berkovsky’s props, as silly as this may sound, I also have to commend the creation of the antique dentist drill used near the end of Act I. That painstakingly-detailed, twisted nightmare of rust and gears might just be the best prop I’ve seen onstage in a long time for visually inspiring both fear and humor into the audience instantly. Little Shop is clunky, but it’s impossible to see it without smiling and laughing. The aforementioned archetypes exist for a reason. The show is a guaranteed crowd-pleaser in any form, and will make a pleasant evening for any lover of musical theatre. Just make sure you don’t have any appointments with your dentist or botanist lined up any time soon.
Little Shop of Horrors continues playing at The City Theatre Company every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 8pm and Sundays at 3pm until September 11th.