Little Shop of Horrors (Review)

Jersey Productions plants the seeds, but a gardener is needed

Aug 18, 2009 at 2:06 pm

There’s a lot to like about Jersey Productions staging of the campy classic musical Little Shop of Horrors. The music, by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, is tuneful, the voices are good, the humor is goofy and amusing (even if you’ve seen it before) and the modest staging doesn’t get in the way. But something’s missing at the Aronoff Center’s Jarson-Kaplan Theater.

The parts don’t quite fit together. Maybe the show needed more rehearsal before it opened on Aug. 14. (Programs didn’t arrive until intermission.) Maybe Little Shop has become so familiar that the performers didn’t fully invest themselves in it. Maybe we need a new take on Audrey II, the man-eating plant that’s hell-bent on world conquest. Maybe director Gina Kleesattel needed to be a sterner gardener.

While Little Shop has all the necessary ingredients for a good harvest, the show never quite ripens. The girls in the Doo Wop/Motown Greek chorus — Crystal (Chauntel McKenzie), Ronnette (Kiera Thomas) and Chiffon (Chanelle Williams), whose names remind us of girl groups from the 1960s — are talented and have the moves, but they’re not enough of an ensemble. (They're pictured above.)

McKenzie is a sprightly show-off; Thomas is sly and subtle; Williams is coy and sharp-tongued. They wear period clothing appropriate to the run-down neighborhood, although a bit too clean; only once do they briefly appear in matching red, white and black gowns (costumes are by Sara Hauck). That’s not enough to remind us of what they’re meant to evoke.

Despite a weirdly unnatural blonde wig, Alyssa Hostetler has a fine voice and the pretty vacancy required for Audrey, the flower shop girl who missed the call when self-esteem was passed out. Brendon North has the geeky presence, the earnest eagerness and the vocal chops for the hapless gofer who cultivates the disastrous plant. Admittedly, Ashman’s script works harder to make jokes than build a love story with any depth, but there’s precious little chemistry between this pair.

Supporting performers create caricatures, but they’re often in their own little worlds of performance rather than participating in a coherent, comic ensemble. David Roth’s flower shop owner, Mr. Mushnik, is awkward and stagy, frequently turning to the audience to deliver his lines. Max Monnig plays Orin, the motorcycle-riding (although his vehicle is only referenced, not shown), drug-huffing dentist and three fawning people who try to capitalize on Seymour’s fame. But each role (including one in drag) feels like the same guy in a new costume. The director should have reined Monnig in or armed him with different ways to distinguish these humorous turns.

Andrew Maloney effectively manipulates the various puppet incarnations of Audrey II, including keeping the larger ones in synch with Derek Snow’s vocals. It’s a convincing illusion, but I’m really ready for a designer to devise a new concept for the bloodthirsty plant. (This one was borrowed, I believe, from UC’s College-Conservatory of Music.) Rather than having the characters that Audrey II devours pop up as plants at the end, the four actors lurched about upstage like zombies — a dramatic choice that seemed inconsistent with the fact that they’d been devoured and digested.

Steve Hinnenkamp played keyboard and led four other musicians. They did a fine job of accompanying the show’s best numbers — Hostetler’s “Somewhere That’s Green” and Hostetler and North on the dramatically silly “Suddenly, Seymour” — but their electronic output overpowered the voices in the cacophony of the final scene.

I suspect audiences will enjoy Little Shop. But a shot of high-powered plant food and the firm hand of a stern gardener would have made it so much better.

LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, presented by Jersey Productions, continues through Aug. 22 at the Aronoff Center's Jarson-Kaplan Theater. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.