In my July review of Musical Theatre West’s big-stage, big-budget production of Little Shop Of Horrors, I wrote, “Little Shop Of Horrors is that rarity in musical theater—a show which works equally well in a tiny space and on a Broadway-sized stage, one which can delight and entertain whether performed by teenagers, amateurs, or … A-List professionals,” a comment proved spot-on by the intimate theater revival just opened at the Knightsbridge. Though it doesn’t have the big bucks behind it that MTW’s did, and though its leads haven’t yet starred on Broadway or been TV regulars, under Jaz Davison’s nothing-short-of-inspired direction, this may well be the most exciting Little Shop I’ve seen.

For those who aren’t familiar with Little Shop Of Horrors (there must be some of you out there), this musical adaptation of Roger Corman’s 1960 cult movie classic centers around Seymour Krelborn, a 30something orphan (and nerd extraordinaire) who works in the crummiest and least successful flower shop on Skid Row. In fact, business is so pitiful at Mushnik’s Skid Row Florists that Seymour’s cranky middle-aged boss has informed the shop’s two (and only) employees, Seymour and curvaceous bimbo-with-a-heart-of-gold Audrey, that the time has come to close shop for good. Fortunately for the two workers, a customer (the first they’ve had in days) is so charmed and fascinated by the “strange and interesting plant” sitting in the store window that he buys $100 worth of roses. This starts shop owner and Seymour to thinking—could this plant, which Seymour just happened to find not long after a total eclipse of the sun, be the answer to their prayers?

Before long, business is booming, Seymour’s boss is thinking of adopting the shop’s prize worker, Seymour is finding it harder and harder to think of the va-va-voomy Audrey as just a co-worker, and Audrey is wondering if maybe Seymour might just be the knight in geek armor who can rescue her from Orin Scrivello D.D.S., her sadistic dentist boyfriend. Meanwhile, a gaggle of grade school dropouts named after 1960s girl groups, keep popping up to comment on the action and to sing backup to Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s memorable songs.

There’s only one problem with the strange and interesting plant, which Seymour has named Audrey II in honor of his dream girl.  Said plant, which starts out a cute little green sapling, possibly of the Venus Fly Trap family, has a craving for blood, human blood, and the drops Seymour gives it from his increasingly bandaged fingers are soon nowhere near enough to satisfy its cravings. Audrey II wants a body’s worth of blood, and it wants Seymour to supply it posthaste.

For the few who’ve never seen Little Shop Of Horrors, plot synopsizing ends here so as not to spoil the musical’s multiple surprises. What remains is simply to list the many reasons why this latest production is such an all-around winner.

The Knightsbridge proves a quite perfect setting for Little Shop Of Horrors. For many years the home of the Colony Theatre Company, the 1920’s silent movie house on Riverside Drive has just the right “seen-better-days” feel that makes it a great fit for a musical which began its life off-Broadway in the similar-sized 1930s WPA Theatre. John Paul De Leonardis’ scenic design may lack the splendor of the Broadway revival sets used in the MTW production, but his revolving set has a great grungy feel to it, and the Little Shop itself is as deliberately drab as the Skid Row florist’s it’s supposed to be.

To direct the current production, The Knightsbridge invited company member emeritus Davison to return from her expatriate life in the UK to the U.S. of A., and a savvy decision this has proven to be.  Under Davison’s supremely imaginative direction, this Little Shop Of Horrors seems fresh and new and more alive than ever. Simply put, her innovations are Little Strokes Of Genius.

First of all, she’s doubled the number of Skid Row dropouts from three to six. Davison’s production features a trio of teenage Doo Wops and another of preteen Urchins. At the Knightsbridge, 2 Chiffons + 2 Crystals + 2 Ronnettes = 2X the voices, 2X the laughs, and 2X the fun.

Then there’s Mushnik, the Skid Row florist who overworks and underpays Seymour until his botanical discovery catapults him (and Mushnik’s flower shop) to fame. Here, Mr. Mushkin has become Mrs. Muskin, a middle-aged Jewish widow, a switch which brings freshness to the employer-employee relationship, as when Seymour and Mrs. Mushkin dance a male-female tango to “Mushnik And Son.”

Finally, carnivorous plant Audrey II is now (can you guess?) a sexy female man-eater (voiced by Pamela Taylor, every bit as soulful as her traditional male counterparts).

Poor Seymour.  If he was browbeaten before, he’s truly (forgive my language) pussywhipped at the Knightsbridge. No wonder he craves the fame he achieves via Audrey II.  No wonder he wants to assert his manhood by supplanting dental sadist Oren in the heart (and arms) of the fair Audrey.

Davison has done an especially fine job of casting her Little Shop. 

Mark Petrie makes for an excellent Seymour.  Underneath his eyeglasses and Richie Cunningham shirts and slacks, Petrie’s Seymour fancies himself Elvis in nerd’s clothing, and whenever there’s a broom (or other mike substitute) handy, he’s likely to swivel those hips and belt out the tune in true King Of Rock And Roll fashion. Petrie is entirely real, and so endearing as Seymour that it’s no wonder Audrey falls for him. 

As the girl of Seymour’s dreams, Leslie Duke is quite possibly the best Audrey I’ve seen so far, the actress combining curvaceous sex appeal with vulnerability, lovability, and unsinkable optimism. Duke acts and sings the heck out of the part, and her “Somewhere That’s Green” brought tears to my eyes as the song rarely has before. 

Knightsbridge regular Marti Hale is a fine and feisty Mrs. Mushnik, though in “Mushnik And Son,” her singing voice tends to be overpowered by the production’s three-piece band. David Zack is a hoot in a variety of roles, particularly as abusive dentist Orin, and a hilariously robotic turn as the flower shop’s all-time most generous (and possibly not-of-this-earth) customer.

The Doo Wops (Cloie Wyatt Taylor, Kelly Boczek, and Diana Tolin) and Urchins (Ariana Serrano, Danielle Soibelman, and Sydney Banner) comment sassily on the action, belt out Ashman tunes, and wear a bevy of inventive ensembles designed by Tolin. This sextet of triple-threats are non-stop delights, and 10-year-old Soibelman, recently seen in MTLA’s Cabaret, may well have the most powerful pre-teen pipes I’ve ever heard.

The cast is completed in fine fashion by Tim Boeck (Derelict) and Travis Terry (Drunk), Boeck spending most of the show hidden inside Audrey II manipulating that voracious mouth of hers.

Davison’s staging is visually imaginative, and she is aided in great measure by Jennifer Gabbert’s 1950s/60s-inspired choreography (which includes a cleverly inserted bit of the hora). Debbie Lawrence’s musical direction is first-rate, and the band (Lawrence on keyboard, Mike Sosa on drums, and David Parke on guitar) provide terrific backup. Happy Lemming Productions’ lighting design adds to the show’s emotional impact, with a particularly effective use of red, Little Shop being the “bloodiest” show this side of Sweeney Todd.

The Knightsbridge has an excellent track record for musicals, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed their Cabaret, Hair, and La Cage Aux Folles. Little Shop Of Horrors may well be their best all-around best musical to date, a production in which each and every element comes magically together to produce a show which will likely thrill both Little Shop aficionados and newbies in equal measure.

Knightsbridge Theatre, 1944 Riverside Drive, Los Angeles.

–Steven Stanley
September 5, 2009

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