If the premise of Little Shop of Horrorsa talking alien plant that lives on human bloodsounds like it came from a 1960s B-movie, well, it did. The talented team of lyricist Howard Ashman and composer Alan Menken based their musical, which became an off-Broadway hit and a successful movie, on a low-budget 1960 schlock horror film by Roger Corman.
To open its season in high-camp style, the Tennessee Rep has revived Little Shop of Horrors with the help of director/choreographer Edie Cowan, who choreographed the original off-Broadway production. Ashman’s clever lyrics and offbeat characters give the play a witty cynicism that makes it a hilarious antidote to classic musicalswhich always feature a heroically handsome leading man and a beautiful, virginal leading lady. Seymour, the male lead, is a hopeless nerd who’s only redeeming quality is his talent for nursing a finicky plant. Audrey, the leading lady, is a tart with a heart who thinks she deserves her biker boyfriend’s abuse because she has “a past.”
As Seymour and Audrey, Ned Wimmer and Cheryl Stern could stand to generate more comic and romantic chemistry, but both take advantage of the ample opportunities to belt supplied by Ashman and Menken. They are ably supported by a terrific doo-wop trio (Connye Florance, Courtney D. Lesley and Shirley Tripp), but they’re completely upstaged from offstage by Barry Scott, whose plaintive, pleading and insistent voice injects enough personality into the muppety plant rooted at center stage to give the whole production a jolt of electricity.
Part of the fun of a schlocky musical like Little Shop of Horrors lies in the funny little surprises it delivers, such as the greasy biker who turns out to be a dentist and the bums who pop up from the gutter to offer little bits of song. The widespread success of the 1986 movie version means that many audience members already know about these surprises: While the material is still funny, it’s no longer fresh and new, although those who have only seen the movie will still be surprised by the stage version’s differentand blackerending. Still, to stage a theater production after a good film version is to invite comparison: As the sadistic biker dentist who holds Audrey in thrall, Brian Mathis must fill the tall shoes of comedian Steve Martin. While Mathis’ comic talents may not equal Martin’s, he manages to make the character his own and offers a hilariously crowd-pleasing performance.
Other than the fact that we don’t get to see the doo-wop trio in their eye-popping sequined gowns for nearly long enough, the only problem with the Rep’s Little Shop of Horrors is the sound in the Polk Theater. Lyricist Ashman, who wrote the brilliant songs in Disney’s The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, is a master at producing songs that advance a musical’s plot, and Cowan’s cast at the Rep belts them out with gusto. But at several crucial times, the lyrics are either drowned out by the band or swallowed up by the sound system, leaving the audience struggling to figure out what they missed. With other difficult technical taskssuch as plant puppetrycarried off without a hitch, it’s a shame that the sound quality ends up undermining the production.
The Tennessee Repertory Theatre presents Little Shop of Horrors at TPAC’s Polk Theater Thursday through Sunday through Sept. 24. Call 741-7777 for ticket information.
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So long Don. Your creative energy and encouragement were inspirational to me.
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