Audrey II, the “strange and interesting plant” that made his/her/its? first appearance way back in Roger Corman’s 1960 Z-movie classic, is back, newly arrived in Thousand Oaks for a two-week visit with much voracious munching on his/her/its cannibalistic mind—and you all know what that means. “They may offer you lots of cheap thrills, fancy condos in Beverly Hills, but whatever they offer you, don’t feed the plants!”

Under Lewis Wilkenfeld’s expert direction, and with a terrific cast of Broadway and regional theater vets and talented newcomers, this latest Little Shop Of Horrors makes for an all-around sensational evening of musical comedy.

Jim Holdridge, fresh from his successes in Life Could Be A Dream and Sweeney Todd, is Seymour Krelborn, a 30something orphan (and wallflower) who works in the crummiest and least successful flower shop on New York’s skid row. In fact, business is so pitiful at Mushnik’s Skid Row Florists that cranky middle-aged owner Mr. Mushnik (Gibby Brand) has informed his two (and only) employees, Seymour and bleach blonde bimbo-with-a-heart-of-gold Audrey (Callie Carson), that the time has come to close shop for good. Fortunately for Seymour and Audrey, 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 Mushnik 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, Mushnik is thinking of adopting Seymour, 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 nerdy armor who can rescue her from Orin Scrivello D.D.S. (Damon Kirsche), her sadistic dentist boyfriend. Meanwhile, a trio of grade school dropouts named Chiffon, Crystal, and Ronnette (60s girl group fans will understand at once where their names come from) keep popping up to comment on the action and to sing backup to songs by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken.

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 thing, 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 (there must be some of you out there), plot synopsizing ends here so as not to spoil Little Shop’s many surprises. What remains is simply to list the many reasons why Cabrillo’s Little Shop Of Horrors proves a perfect big stage revival, one that is sure to delight and charm audiences throughout its run.

Director Wilkenfeld has clearly followed book writer Howard Ashman’s note that “the script keeps its tongue firmly in cheek, so actors should not.” Not only do his actors sing to perfection (that’s a given, considering the talent involved), they create real, three-dimensional characters as well.

No one plays nerdy better than Holdridge, and when you combine the sweetness and honesty he brings to the role with some of the best pipes in town, you’ve got one all-around nerdelicious performance. Carson, who recently stole every scene she was in as Maureen in Rent, has just the right blend of Marilyn Monroe beauty and sexiness and Audrey I charm and vulnerability—and she can belt out “Somewhere That’s Green” and “Suddenly Seymour” with killer pipes and heartbreaking poignancy.

Brand does fine, funny work as Mr. Mushnik, expertly transitioning from mensch to villain, and his tango with Holdridge to “Mushnik And Son” is an Act One highlight.

Dreamgirls may be playing down in Costa Mesa, but Cabrillo has its own dream urchins in Robyn Michelle Jackson, Domonique Paton, and Nicole Tillman as Chiffon, Crystal, and Ronnette. (Don’t you love those names?) The threesome make for a tasty blend of sassy and street, and their ‘60s girl group harmonies couldn’t be better as they sing or back up the title song, “Skid Row,” “Da-Doo,” “Dentist,” “Suddenly Seymour,” and “The Meek Shall Inherit.” (Musical theater fans who trek from CLO to CLO know the versatile Tillman as the best Joanne ever in MTW’s Rent.)

Finally, though the two great Orins I’ve seen in just the past nine months alone are tough acts to follow, Kirsche may well be the best of the bunch. (When I say Orin, I mean evil Dr. Orin Scrivello D.D.S and the five other roles in the “Orin track.”) What makes Kirsche’s work such a standout here, in addition to the fresh new takes he provides on all six roles, is seeing this traditional musical theater leading man turn character actor extraordinaire. Who would have thought that My Fair Lady’s Freddy, Camelot’s Lancelot, and Oklahoma!’s Curly could so transform himself into the fussiest flower shop customer ever, the dentist/semi-sadist Audrey is dating, fast-talking Jewfroed NBC exec Mr. Bernstein, elegant Life Magazine editor’s wife Mrs. Luce (a handsome woman indeed), slick super agent Skip Snip, and opportunistic James Brolin clone Patrick Martin? Kirsche alone is worth the price of the show.

Kameren Chase Neal voices Audrey II in sensational ‘60s soul artist fashion and James W. Gruessing takes charge of Audrey II “manipulation” deep inside the plant. Michael Conoscenti and Nick Newkirk complete the cast as Derelict and Dental Patient (and hide inside Audrey II’s roots to creepy/funny effect.)

Menken’s tunes are every bit as lovely and catchy as those he later wrote for The Little Mermaid, Beauty And The Beast, Aladdin, etc. Ashman’s hilarious book sends up those 50s horror flicks inspired by Cold War paranoia and his lyrics are clever indeed.

Thumbs up for John Charron’s choreography—a father-son tango and some tangy girl group moves. Musical Director Matthew Smedal conducts the show’s rocking five piece orchestra while playing keyboards.

Sets are the original Broadway/tour scenic design by Scott Pask and they’re at once gorgeous and kooky. The same can be said for William Ivey Long’s original Broadway costumes, coordinated here by Christine Gibson. Michael Tachco lights the sets and costumes to perfection. Jonathan Burke’s sound design is never anything less than excellent. Paul Hadobas did the great hair and wig designs. Lindsay Martens is production stage manager, assisted by Allie Roy.

Never mind that you’ve already seen your kid’s or sibling’s high school musical production of Little Shop, or one of the numerous local 99-seat revivals, or the Broadway tour which played the Ahmanson. Cabrillo’s Little Shop is well worth a look. It’s a meaty musical comedy treat from its girl group start to its imaginative slide show finish.

Cabrillo Music Theatre, Kavli Theatre, Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, 2100 Thousand Oaks Boulevard, Thousand Oaks.

–Steven Stanley
April 23, 2010
Photos: Ed Krieger

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