Regional Reviews: Chicago
Little Shop of Horrors
Also see Christine's recent review of The Innocence of Seduction
OK, maybe no one actually ever said that, but it makes no real difference anyway: a solid production of the world's only such musical is virtually guaranteed to be entertaining, and Paramount Theatre's is indeed outstanding. From a killer (sorry) set to virtuoso performances to high camp to the world-conquering, serial-killing shrub itself, this is an utterly perfect Little Shop of Horrors.
After a "voice not unlike God" (the late Hollis Resnik) opens the proceedings, we are immersed into a Jeffrey D. Kmiec-designed set in the bleakness of New York City's Skid Row, a dark place where tall buildings block out the sun and pornographic entertainment is plentiful and cheap ("Peep Shows 25 Cents"). Yet, somehow, in all of this deplorable, impoverished ugliness, there is a little flower shop that, though constantly struggling, has found a way to remain open, though its proprietor, Mr. Mushnik (an entertaining Gene Weygandt) is just about ready to give it up for dead.
The narrative singing trio of Chiffon, Crystal, and Ronnette (Lydia Burke, Marta Bady, and Tickwanya Jones) are entrancing with their movements choreographed by Michael George and Mariah Morris and costumes by Yvonne Miranda. When they aren't handling their singing duties, we often see them just hanging around the slum, mixing with winos and other denizens of this forlorn place. But they are marvelous while singing, whether alone, as in the title song, or as part of the ensemble, as in "The Meek Shall Inherit."
As the nebbishy Seymour, who spends his days experimenting with strange hybrid plants and pining for fellow Skid Row resident Audrey (Teressa LaGamba), who also works in the flower shop, Jack Ball could have been designed directly from the original screenplay. This Seymour is a skinny, put-upon man who is quite obviously, as the trio sings, "a meek little guy." In Mushnik's perpetually customerless shop, Seymour finds himself wasting time sweeping along with the metronomic ticking of the clock and waiting for quitting time at six. He's wiry, a bit clumsy, and totally sincere–and he wishes Audrey would notice him instead of the "semi-sadist" dentist (Russell Murnagh) she is seeing. It takes his discovery of a reality-warping alien space plant to finally bring them together.
LaGamba's amazing singing voice (she received several in-song ovations on opening night) helps differentiate her Audrey from the stereotype created by the popular film and Broadway actress Ellen Greene. This Audrey is a victim of poverty and her own insecurity, but she is not weak. In fact, you might start to wonder why she allows Murnagh's gas-guzzling dentist to abuse her as he does. When she allows herself some self-respect, LaGamba's Audrey becomes a fully realized character rather than a simple caricature of helpless femininity. (Her rendition of "Somewhere That's Green" is utterly heartbreaking.)
As Orin Scrivello, DDS–he demands that Audrey use that full name–Murnagh has lots of fun, but rarely seems the domineering sadist we saw in Steve Martin's film portrayal. He seems like the kind of guy who'd love to be someone's best buddy if only he knew how, much more than inflicting pain on both Audrey and his patients. It's a different take on the character and an interesting one, though it seems at odds with "feeding him to a hungry plant."
Speaking of that plant, this Audrey II was designed and created by Skylight Music Theatre and is puppeteered by Adam Fane. The plant's huge, elegant, devious voice is that of Je'Shaun Jackson. Both of them get well-deserved curtain calls along with the more visible cast. Unfortunately, there is no way for the excellent five-piece band conducted by Kori Danielson to do the same, though their dynamic sound drives the whole show. (Speaking of sound, Adam Rosenthal's sound design includes lots of room for fun moments from electronic music designer Ethan Deppe.)
This may not be a production that redefines Little Shop, but it certainly is one that takes great advantage of everything that Howard Ashman and Alan Menken provided in the musical adaptation. What this translates to is hilarious, campy fun, and what more could a theatregoer want?
Little Shop of Horrors runs through October 15, 2023, at Paramount Theatre, 23 East Galena Boulevard, Aurora IL. For tickets and information, please visit paramountaurora.com.