Give me a little murder with my musical. Cynicism with my choreography. Horror with my harmonies. Camp with my catastrophes! Give me Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s goofy, bizarre, touching, surprising modern morality play, Little Shop of Horrors.
This 1980s riff on a 1960s B-movie combines pathos, parody and a giant, man-eating plant to create a deceptively light-hearted evening. But, deep beneath the three-part harmonies, dance numbers, sadistic dentists, and death by alien plants, it speaks to our humanity: our desire for love, fame, food, security, visibility, redemption, relevance, and the lengths we might be tempted to go to achieve these things.
The UP Stages production of Little Shop of Horrors is an entertaining evening of theater, with pleasant vocals, competent staging and musical direction, and solid production values. It is steady, if not inspired, in its interpretation.
The three Urchins, played by Emily Cooper, Maya Boyd, and Alison Hnatow are charming and fun. All three have nice voices, though they have difficulty maintaining a consistent blend. Sometimes this is a matter of simply not being physically close enough on the stage to hear each other properly. Sometimes it is a matter of vocal technique. And sometimes it is an issue with the miking and sound mix.
(Speaking of sound – If you know me, you know I hate stage mikes. But I have to say, the sound design for this show was really thoughtful and, for the most part, well executed. The mix between orchestra and vocals was well balanced, and I never felt like the sound designer was trying to deafen me. The body miking was subtle and supportive.)
The Urchins came on strong in Act I, but they fell apart a bit in Act II, especially during “The Meek Shall Inherit.” Little Shop seems deceptively easy to sing, but in truth, it takes a lot of technique and stamina to sustain the vocal performances. The Urchins fell victim to this and ran out of vocal steam in Act II.
Ricardo Vila-Roger’s Mr. Mushnik gives the weakest vocal performance, but has the strongest stage presence, providing a good anchor for the rest of the cast. He’s a good straight-man, and a great sport, leading to one of the dance highlights of the night – the tango-inspired “Mushnik and Son” near the end of Act I.
(Speaking of choreography – I appreciated choreographer Andrea Gunoe’s sense of humor, and her ability to create choreography that was both fun and appropriate for the skill level of the performers. She made the non-dancer cast look good dancing!)
Kylie Dunne gives a lovely vocal performance of Audrey, managing most of the singing challenges easily, though her pitch goes a little wonky, then a lot sharp in the finale of “Suddenly Seymour.” She is the least successful with her characterization, delivering a morose, flat interpretation of Audrey, devoid of the sense of humor needed to round out the self-loathing tackiness of the character.
(Speaking of tacky – While costume designer Dorothy Sherman definitely hit the “tacky” nail on the head with Audrey’s costumes, I think she missed the mark with her overall design. The costumes had no specific aesthetic point of view. There were no color palette choices, no stylistic conventions creating a cohesive design statement. And, most egregiously, the costumes did not help set the show in any particular time period; based on costume choices, I couldn’t tell if we were in the 50s, the 80s, the 90s, or what.
Laura Valenti’s scenic design was economical, clever and appropriate to the production. Lighting designer Lea Bosilovich created a pleasant, sometimes flat but always nicely saturated environment.)
Patrick Meyer’s Seymour Krelborn was goofy and sympathetic, and his vocal performance was spot on.
The production’s stand-out performance was given by actor Davis Weaver, who played the sadistic dentist, Orin Scrivello, DDS, along with most of the other incidental characters in the piece. I am torn about Mr. Weaver’s performance. He’s a really good character actor, really good. He managed to create multiple characters with distinct, over-the-top characterizations, not to mention his killer falsetto worthy of a second and third listen. However, his broad, big style did not match the more subdued style of the rest of the cast. He was funny. And memorable. But, ultimately, the broadness of his performance created a dissonance in the overall production.
Adia Augustin provided the voice/vocals for Audrey II. Ms. Augustin did a fine job, though I think the characterization suffers from the higher voice, rather than the original lower male voice. It loses some of that deep, smarmy funkiness that comes with a blues/r&b baritone vocal, and some of the transpositions to the mezzo range didn’t hit my ear with quite the same fullness of tone or menace that I have come to love about Audrey II.
(Speaking of Audrey II – The puppets designed and built by Misfit Toys Theatrical were terrific, though I missed the larger, more invasive plant tentacles in the final scene that are often part of the plant design. And let’s give a BIG SHOUT OUT to the wonderful puppeteers for this production: Sarah Vander Wagen, Ariana Starkman, and Jeff Zeng. That is a job of work!)
Whether this is your first or fifth time seeing Little Shop, UP Stages’ production is worth the watch. In spite of some rough patches, the show is fun and funky enough to be well worth your time.
UP Stages’ production of Little Shop of Horrors runs February 8-18, 2018 in the Charity Randall Theatre in Oakland. Tickets are available through www.play.pitt.edu, or you can call 412-624-PLAY (7529).