Ty Hudson (left) in Artistry’s production of Little Shop of Horrors, with the Greek chorus of Alicia Britton, Falicia Cunningham, and Jill Iverson to the right and Audrey II in the center.
Based on the 1960 comedy horror movie of the same name, Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s musical Little Shop of Horrors has become a beloved classic in its own right since it was originally produced off-Broadway in 1982. (This was well before Menken and Ashman became the darlings of Disney with 1989’s The Little Mermaid and 1991’s Beauty and the Beast, and four years before the stage musical was itself adapted into a cult hit of a film starring Rick Moranis.)
Armed with carnivorous plants, demented dentists, omniscient doo-wop singers, and a poor kid with big dreams, this campy, whimsical show comes to Artistry at Bloomington Center for the Arts through February 19. While the production takes few risks in the interpretation, the vibrant and talented cast offer vocal and comedic performances that keep the evening afloat.
Artistry’s new staging of Little Shop is helmed by stage direction by Joe Chvala and musical direction by Anita Ruth. It blends the charming cartoonishness of the original stage production with the pulpiness of the 1950s and 60s B-movie, tied together by Coney Island rollercoasters and the thrillseeking teeny boppers who would flock to them. The scenery (designed by Eli Schlatter) is all bright colors and comically exaggerated forced perspective angles, filled practically to the brim with visual interest. All credit to Christopher Lutter and Kristi Ternes, responsible for designing and building the various puppets representing the aforementioned killer plant, Audrey II, ably piloted by puppeteer Charles Goitia and voiced by the vivacious Brandon Jackson. The production team has succeeded in creating a full world onstage, seemingly bursting right out of the horror comics some of the characters are seen reading.
In mixing together the various ingredients in the production, Chvala has perhaps gone a little heavy with the nostalgia, occasionally veering into the derivative. The performance that seems most plagued by former characterizations is Courtney Groves as Audrey, who seems a little haunted by Ellen Greene’s original interpretation, slipping into mannerisms every once in a while that stick out from the rest of her performance – she even sports a platinum wig in the exact style. Groves comes into her own as the action unfolds, however, and shines once she reaches “Suddenly Seymour” in the second act.
As Seymour Krelborn, our Faustian hero, Ty Hudson provides a good mix of clumsy vulnerability and believable nerd rage that help the plant sway him to dark and sinister acts. His foil, Michael Fischetti as Mr. Mushnik, is a charismatic curmudgeon who finds a way to sell every moment. (An unexpected highlight of the first act is “Mushnik and Son,” showing off some of Chvala’s choreography as well.) The most commanding performance comes through Phillip C. Matthews, who plays several smaller parts but leaves his mark as Orin Scrivello-as-Andy-Kaufman-as-Elvis-Presley, Audrey’s sadistic, no-good boyfriend. Matthews chews on each piece of scenery that comes into his path, and it’s pretty great. As the Motown Greek chorus backup singers, Alicia Britton, Falicia Cunningham, and Jill Iverson belt with the best of them and keep the energy high.
At Sunday’s performance, there seemed unfortunately to be issues with the sound mixing, causing some of the lyrics to be garbled and the orchestra to win out over the singers. Sound issues notwithstanding, the show is vulnerable to moments with too much to look at and/or not a clear focus, which undercuts some potential comedic moments or character beats, but all in all Little Shop of Horrors at Artistry is a competent and enjoyable production, if a little defanged.