Horror and comedy mix well. Laughter and terror are base emotions, but both require a degree of nuance to actually work. A comedy with stilted rhythm is unsettling; horror without subtlety is hilarious. Roger Corman’s Little Shop of Horrors wasn’t the first horror comedy ever produced, but it was the first to intrinsically understand that a bad horror film is often a great comedy.
The Comtra Theatre’s Little Shop of Horrors, a new production based on the musical adaptation (written by Howard Ashman with music by Alan Menken) from 1982, is an energetic wellspring of fun horror motifs. The story goes like this: Seymour (Robby Yoho), a put-upon florist who purchases an unknown breed of plant from a stranger, is surprised to find that his new ‘discovery’ is eye-catching enough to attract dozens of new customers to the floral shop where he works. He is more surprised to learn that the plant’s only source of sustenance is fresh human blood.
The larger the plant grows, the more of a local celebrity Seymour becomes, and the more human sacrifice the plant demands. Once it becomes clear the plant can no longer sustain itself on pinpricks alone, Seymour faces a difficult choice: how far will he go to maintain his sudden success?
Comtra’s production is acted, directed and produced almost entirely by students from nearby high schools. The theater has produced other high school shows in the past, including four other works helmed by Little Shop of Horror’s director, Jocelyn Kavanagh, a senior at Seneca Valley Senior High.
As someone who grew up watching almost a half dozen art programs be bled dry by lack of funding or interest, Comtra’s latest production is an easy example of how much good art programs actually do. This is a coordinated production. It’s ambitious, even, in its performances and set design. There’s this bizarre instinct out there to dismiss high school students as somehow unable to make anything resonant without extensive guidance, and Little Shop of Horror’s cast and crew – happily – have proven the sentiment ridiculous.
This musical is a particularly smart choice for a young production. Little Shop of Horrors is sharp-edged enough to feel a little dangerous, but without going beyond the pale. Characters in it possess complexity. There’s Orin, a psychotic dentist who gets high on both the pain of his patients and the extremely potent laughing gas he gives himself before operations. This character is played by Matt Kraynik, who plays many characters of interest in the play. He has a natural comedic instinct and embodies his characters easily. Audrey, who is sweet hearted and an unfortunate victim of abuse, is something of a cartoon-y damsel in distress in the source material, but Emma Hackworth takes her seriously as a human being. In this production, Audrey is not a passive victim of circumstance, but a woman who is self-destructive and desperate. That is a good choice.
I’m far from the most experienced theatergoer at PGH in the Round, but I think I’ve seen enough shows to be an authority on technical difficulties. For an audience, a play is not the script or its intent. A play is what happens in front of us, and nothing else. There was a moment during Little Shop of Horrors where Yoho’s Seymour must throw an object at some distance into the plant’s giant head. He misses, and Tyler Mortier, who plays the plant, begins heckling Yoho’s aim. I’ve seen too many shows where some important part of a character’s wardrobe is accidentally flung off in a fight scene, or an important piece of the set is shattered, or a pair of pants fall completely off of an actor without any mention from a panicked cast. All of these examples are real, and I remember them for a specific reason. Left unacknowledged, an audience leaves a show remembering these moments as funny, awkward things that happened to the people in the play. Own it, and suddenly the event is part of the play’s narrative.
This incident was a small part of the show, but it’s a nutshell moment for the cast and crew. Comtra’s Little Shop of Horrors is a showcase for young talent. Mel Welles, an actor in the original film, said that Little Shop of Horrors’ success was based in large part because it was “a love project.” The same joy in creativity is present here. The Comtra Theatre has enabled its team to stretch their creative muscles, and they will be better equipped to pursue work in and beyond theater as a result. It is good that the venue exists; spaces like it deserve celebration.
Little Shop of Horrors runs at Comtra Theatre through August 19. For tickets and more information, click here.