Where: Mercury Theater Chicago,
3745 N. Southport Ave.
When: through June 30
By ANNE SPISELMAN
You could look at “Little Shop of Horrors” as a Faustian cautionary tale about the myth of the American Dream and the cost of giving in to the temptations of fame and fortune, but it’s probably best to just go with the flow of Howard Ashman (book and lyrics) and Alan Menken’s (music) campy 1982 sci-fi musical based on Roger Corman’s low-budget 1960 film.
Directed by L. Walter Stearns, the production at Mercury Theater has some limitations but also offers much to enjoy, even if the material is dated and out of sync with contemporary political correctness.
Set on New York’s Skid Row in the 1960s, the story centers on Seymour Krelborn (Christopher Kale Jones), the clumsy, nebbishy assistant to Mr. Mushnik (Tommy Novak), owner of a failing florist shop. An orphan taken in as a child by his boss, Seymour is secretly in love with his co-worker Audrey (Dana Tretta), a blond with questionable fashion sense and very low self-esteem, who is physically abused by her boyfriend Orin (David Sajewich) but doesn’t believe that she deserves anyone better.
One day when Seymour is at the flower market, a total eclipse of the sun occurs, after which he finds a strange little plant that resembles a cross between a Venus flytrap and an avocado. He takes it back to the shop, tries to nurse it to health, and shows it to Mushnik as a possible way to attract customers.
Once Seymour secretly discovers that the plant, which he calls Audrey II, feeds on human blood, things take off. He becomes the toast of the town (bandaged fingers and all) with magazine articles, speaking engagements, and such. His romance with Audrey flowers, especially in the wake of the mysterious disappearance of the sadistic Orin, And business at the shop blossoms, as Audrey II grows bigger and bigger.
While Seymour feels guilty about what he has to do to keep the voracious Audrey II satisfied, he does it anyway, prompted by the fear of discovery and, more importantly, the mistaken fear that Audrey won’t love him if he goes back to being a nobody. Eventually, of course, its too late for him to stop the monster he’s fostered, and the plant takes over the world.
Ashman and Menken’s genius is that they shaped the show a little like a mock Greek tragedy, with a sixties-style girl group—Crystal (Nicole Lambert), Ronnette (Adhana Reid) and Chiffon (Shantel Cribbs)–as the chorus. They explain the story, provide commentary, and even give the characters advice.
The delightful songs, some with very clever lyrics, cover a wide variety of genres from blues to pop, and this first-rate trio delivers some numbers alone, among them the “Prologue (Little Shop of Horrors)” and “Da-Doo,” as well as chiming in on most of the others. These include “Don’t It Go to Show Ya Never Know,” with Mushnik and Seymour, “Dentist!” with Orin, “Feed Me (Git It)”with Audrey II and Seymour, “Suppertime” with Audrey II, and the big love song “Suddenly Seymour” with Seymour and Audrey. The whole company performs “Skid Row (Downtown)” and the “Finale (Don’t Feed the Plants)” with aplomb, while the sweetest solo is the oh-so-sad “Somewhere That’s Green,” Audrey’s suburban fantasy, sung with real heart by Tretta.
The small offstage band under music director/conductor/keyboardist Eugene Dixon generally does a good job of showcasing the singers but tends to blast out the overture and entr’acte. Carl Wahlstrom’s sound design may be partly to blame. The other technical aspects—Alan Donahue’s scenic design, Kristof Janezic’s lighting, and Serena Sandoval’s costumes—are more than adequate.
The entire ensemble is solid, but the standout for me is Jonah Winston as the deep, resonant, menacing voice of Audrey II coupled with puppeteer Sam Woods’ manipulations. On the other hand, the biggest disappointment was the plant’s paucity of branches, vines, and buds in the finale, which was turned into a Las Vegas-style act instead of being a vision of world domination.