Digesting a Faustian Farce
By Tom Wachunas
On its surface, the narrative premise of Little Shop of Horrors, currently playing at Players Guild Theatre in Canton, is patently ridiculous, despite the fact that it’s intended to be unabashedly farcical. Here’s a sci-fi horror spoof about a nebbishy Skid Row flower shop worker who is promised fame and fortune if he feeds human flesh and blood to a voracious alien houseplant intent on dominating the world. Is this stage art of any real consequence?
Then again, let’s not forget the maxim offered by a master of comic absurdity, Johnny Carson: “If you buy the premise you buy the bit.” I find it interesting that the original working script, written by Charles Griffith for the 1960 film that inspired this stage musical, was titled “The Passionate People Eater.” Operative term here: passionate.
Directed and choreographed by Michael Lawrence Akers, this tongue-in-cheek Guild production does indeed have passion, though certainly not of the high-brow heroic sort. Call it passion for parody. And when delivered with panache, as is the case here with Akers’ sizzling cast, parody can be an efficacious art in itself.
Tom Bryant turns in a credible and sturdy portrayal of Mr. Mushnik. World-weary, cranky and domineering, he’s the owner of a flower shop on the verge of closing for lack of business. But he finds a giddy new life unfolding when his assistant, Seymour, acquires an exotic houseplant that attracts lucrative media and public attention.
Playing Seymour, Matthew Heppe is spot-on as a lovably nervous nerd (right down to his taped eyeglasses) who pines so much for the girl of his dreams, co-worker Audrey, that he names his prized plant Audrey II. While Heppe’s singing voice doesn’t employ any showy vibrato, his tonality is nonetheless confident, pure and warm.
Sarah Marie Young is delightfully cheeky in her role of the scatterbrained Audrey. Her singing of Somewhere That’s Green is rich with a sweet woundedness, and easily the show’s most genuinely touching song.
Other than the carnivorous Audrey II, the human antagonist here is Audrey’s sadistic biker- dentist boyfriend, Orin, played by Ryan Nehlen, who is as abusive to Audrey as he is to his patients. The audacious Nehlen is both chilling and utterly hilarious, like some sociopathic Fonzie from a parallel universe. He gets his comeuppance in one of the show’s most raucous scenes (with Seymour), singing Now (It’s Just the Gas).
Another electrifying component of the production is the saucy trio of women characters played by Russelle’ Sanchez (Ronnette), Ruby Myles (Crystal), and Tahja Grier (Chiffon). Like a street-wise Greek chorus, they bring a palpable sparkle to the musical score – a spicy blend of early 1960s rock and roll, doo-wop and Motown. Several times during the matinee performance I saw on October 20, the trio’s singing got so lost in its own swagger that the lyrics were obscured and harmonies slightly off-pitch. But in the larger scheme of things, and given the sheer glow of the trio’s infectious energy (made all the more tangible in the intimate surrounds of the Guild’s arena theater), it was a minor flaw.
And even what the audience doesn’t see on stage makes a vital contribution. Bart Herman is the off-stage voice of Audrey II, and his facile vocalizing gives the cantankerous carnivore’s menacing demands a seductive, even soulful edge. Inside the huge Audrey II is puppeteer Stephen Middaugh, who actually animates the creature with a variety of apropos moves and moods. Also from off-stage, the sound from the super-hot live band directed by Steve Parsons is in perfect aural balance with the singing.
While there’s nothing intrinsically wrong about escapist entertainment, I nonetheless left the theater thinking that this particular show is as much a cautionary tale for our time as it is simply a whacky, macabre “comedy.” There’s no happy ending to Seymour’s deal with the devil, as it were. The story is perhaps a sobering parody of how our modern culture is consumed by its monstrous pursuit of material gain and celebrity. Food for thought, to be sure.
Little Shop of Horrors, presented by the Canton Players Guild Theatre, shows at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday, THROUGH NOVEMBER 3, 1001 Market Ave. N in Canton. Tickets $17 at www.playersguildtheatre.com or at 330-453-7617
PHOTOS, courtesy Michael Lawrence Akers: (Top) Sarah Marie Young as Audrey, Matthew Heppe as Seymour; (Bottom) Bart Herman (left), Stephen Middaugh