SOUTH SALT LAKE CITY — I like tragedies. I find I’m in a minority about this. People around me like things to end happy and well. But I like the sad but enlivening idea of catharsis. So perhaps that’s why Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s Little Shop of Horrors is such a nice medium because most of the show is goofy and frivolous. Excellent acting and superb singing helped the Grand Theatre’s latest production of this perennial classic drive home all the show’s fun and deep messages.
The Grand’s production, directed by David Schmidt, has everything that will Little Shop‘s fans love this production. There are a few shortcomings, but most of these are so minimal that I believe they will be forgotten before the next chorus.
There were some technical hits and misses in this show. The plant puppets (by Máire Nelligan) in general did very well. I was especially impressed with second size of Audrey II that constantly chomped with the doo-wops of the music, yet I could not see any means for manual manipulation Seymour with the way he held the pot. Audrey II at full size was a impressive technical feat. I liked the way her pods incorporated some digested characters in the finale, “Don’t Feed the Plants.”
Working around Audrey II led to some surprising design choices. I was surprised that any flower shop would keep small cupboards in the front of a cashier’s counter for personal coats and flashlights – unless puppeteers needed the back side, of course. One well-transitioned moment was from Mushnik’s flower shop to Orin’s dental office. Set designer Halee Rasmussen discretely transformed the exterior of the flower shop to make a perfect transition. It was then disappointing when some of the magic was lost as they rotated to that side during intermission, allowing the audience to see it disassembled.
There was one final technical element that just needed to find its place in the garden. Most of the time the lighting by Seth Miller helped create a fun atmosphere in songs like “Da-Doo” where the ubiquitous rotating intelligent lights helped me enjoy Seymour’s retelling of finding Audrey II. But other times it just felt mechanical: cue song, cue rotating intelligent lights. This, at times, eclipsed moments like in the great transition to that “total eclipse of the sun” in soft amber spotlights and then back to the fun with the doo-wops.
The ensemble was one of the more wilting factors of this show. They seemed largely underused and lacked concrete direction at times. From “Skid Row” until the end of the show they did not seem to have a purpose or a character other than filling space and being positioned to rotate Mushnik’s shop from street view to inside view. I was also surprised that they only seemed to fill one role as townspeople. The scene where Derrick Dean quickly changes from one character with an offer to the next is wonderfully executed and funny, but in retrospect I wonder why none of the ensemble filled these roles instead.
The Greek chorus provided by Chiffon, Crystal, and Ronnette (Megan Cash, Mary Nelson, and Becca Rose Roberts) were a delight to have on stage. Musically they sent the score flying into space with strong voices able to provide improvisation and excellent harmonies. Unfortunately, they lost out on moments where they could add more to the story. This was most apparent during “Dentist” where Oren’s sadistic tendencies were left only with the words while the doo-wops just did hip pops and said, “Aaah.”
Derrick Dean’s Oren Scrivello, DDS was effectively misogynistic and pompous. I enjoyed his voice, but while he was clearly brutal in his scenes, his songs were lacking. It’s a little surprising how little he laughed during “It’s the Gas,” even though the very lyrics are suggesting that he should be. The well constructed astronaut-style gas mask (by costume designer Amanda Reiser) showed each facial expression, but mostly he quietly suffocated.
The excellent trio of Seymour, Audrey, and Mushnik really helped the show grow. All of these actors did an amazing job of finding the core of these characters and not letting their annoying idiosyncrasies become a crutch. Mushnik (Kim Blackett) is a delightfully frustrated floral shop owner. His curt manner make for many a comedic moment with Seymour and Audrey. He executed his jokes and slapstick moments in “Mushnik and Son,” and as he incriminates Seymour for Orin’s disappearance during some nice film noir vignette throwbacks.
The wonderful portrayal of Elizabeth Summerhays’s Audrey can really be tied up in how well she sang her iconic, “Somewhere That’s Green.” Maintaining that slight but never overbearing nasal lilt throughout the whole song, I saw her little daydream as if it were my own. Then, taking in her surroundings as she sings, “Far from Skid Row, I wish I’d go, somewhere that’s green,” Summerhays brought all the humanity of dreams dashed by reality in a few short lines. Summerhays amplified this wonderful connection to this remarkably human character as she explored and built her relationship with Seymour.
Trevor Dean admirably made Seymour a delightful anti-hero. He is appropriately goofy, but never in a showy manner. All the trips, falls, and awkward dances appeared consistently natural. This is especially nice in moments like the tango in “Mushnik and Son,” Seymour’s apprehensive gun pointing at Orin, or his wild dreams of riding a Harley in “Feed Me (Git It).” Having him so naturally awkward and sweet amplifies his moments with Audrey and “Suddenly Seymour” has an honesty not often achieved with the power anthem. It also gives strength to his realization in “The Meek Shall Inherit.” The sorrow for his predicament of either killing the plant or keeping “Audrey, lovely Audrey” makes his decision to take all the plant’s offers palpable, although seemingly illogical.
Really, of all the criticisms I can throw out, they are like one bad bouquet in the flower store. Generally, the songs blew me out of the water and the acting made me cheer for the poor tenets trying to get out of Skid Row. I’d really suggest people head down to enjoy this “strange and interesting” plant for themselves.