Audrey II, the “strange and interesting plant” that made his/her/its? first appearance way back in 1960 in Roger Corman’s Z-movie classic, is back once again, this time at the La Mirada Theatre For The Performing Arts, with human flesh 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!”

With La Mirada producing artistic director Brian Kite adding his own personal touches as director, and with a trio of leads whose casting seems positively inspired, this latest Little Shop Of Horrors makes for an all-around sensational evening of musical comedy, whether you’re seeing the show for the first time, or like this reviewer for the eighth.

Brett Ryback is Seymour Krelborn, a 30ish wallflower of an orphan 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 (Bob Amaral) has informed his two and only employees, Seymour and bleach blonde bimbo-with-a-heart-of-gold Audrey (Lesli Margherita), that the time has come to close shop for good. Fortunately for Seymour and Audrey, the first customer 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 Seymour might just be the knight in armor who can rescue her from Orin Scrivello D.D.S. (James Royce Edwards), 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, with the body thrown in for good measure, 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 the musical’s many surprises. What remains is simply to list the many reasons why La Mirada’s Little Shop Of Horrors proves a nigh-on perfect big stage revival, one that is sure to delight and charm audiences throughout its run.

Even for those seeing Little Shop for the umpteenth time like this reviewer, there are fresh delights in the Kite-directed production, like Audrey’s hilariously awkward attempts at getting down on her knees in the tightest dress on Skid Row, or her doomed efforts to coax life into the most pathetic bunch of wilted roses you’ve ever seen, or the way dentist Orin uses his extendable mirror probe like a riding whip on poor Audrey.

As for the show’s three leading players, their combined presences put this Little Shop in a class by itself.

Seymour is usually played as the nerd to end all nerds, with horn-rimmed spectacles seemingly de rigueur for the role. Ryback eschews eyeglasses, except at the typewriter, making this Seymour a sweet but outwardly unexceptional Boy Next Door type, one whose hidden gifts only Audrey can see. (Speaking of gifted, just last year Ryback won two Scenies, one as a musical theater performer in La Mirada’s 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, the second as Best Lead Actor/Comedy-Drama for his extraordinary turn as a 13-year-old in Doctor Cerberus at South Coast Rep—awards that only begin to reflect the multi-talents of this actor, singer, composer, playwright, and musical director.) Ryback’s take on Seymour is fresh, personal, and irresistible.

As for his leading lady, there’s probably no one in musical theater more phenomenal than Olivier Award-winning Margherita, also a Scenie winner as Best Featured Actress In A Musical for CLOSBC’s Kiss Me Kate and star of her own spectacular one-woman show All Hail The Queen—with best friend Ryback her musical director. All this is prelude to saying that the petite dynamo’s virtual reinvention of Audrey is something to celebrate. Her adorably winning character voice (a combination of Marilyn Monroe and Baba Wawa with a lisp thrown in for good measure) adds freshness to Audrey’s each and every line, and poignancy to her in-character singing of “Somewhere That’s Green.” Margherita makes Audrey so much more than just a comic bimbo that her final moments on stage are likely to bring tears to your eyes. (They did to mine.)

Orin the dentist is but one of the half-dozen roles that Edwards gets to play in Little Shop’s bonanza of a comedic character track, and like his costars, the StageSceneLA favorite puts such a distinctive stamp on them as to virtually erase memories of previous Orins. Edwards gives us quite possibly the most hyped-up Dr. Scrivello ever, his voice rising to a high-pitched, tweaked-up screech—a likely combination of speed and steroids and laughing gas and who knows what else. It’s a wow of a performance, in addition to Edwards’ quick costume-and-wig-changing turns as an eccentric flower shop customer, fast-talking NBC exec Mr. Bernstein, elegant Life Magazine editor’s wife Mrs. Luce (a muscular woman indeed), slick super agent Skip Snip, and opportunistic entrepreneur Patrick Martin.

An excellent Amaral gives Mr. Mushnik a darker tone than usual, making him more of a threat to his adopted son, his tango to “Mushnik And Son” with Semour as his partner an Act One highlight and an example of Dana Solimando’s terrific choreography.

The ‘60s girl group slash Greek chorus are brought to sassy street life by the splendid trio made up of American Idol’s Angela Peel (Chiffon), Domonique Paton (reprising her Cabrillo Music Theatre role as Crystal), and Carey Rebecca Brown (Ronnette). The Urchins’ 1960s 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.”

Michael A. Shepperd voices Audrey II in sensational ‘60s soul artist fashion and Robin Knight takes charge of Audrey II “manipulation” deep inside the plant.

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.

Multi award-winning Musical Director David O conducts the show’s rocking five piece orchestra while playing piano, accompanied by Brent Crayon (keyboard 2), John Ballinger (guitar), Dominik Hauser (bass), and Kurt Walther (drums).

Sets are the 2003 Broadway revival/national 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. Craig Pierce lights sets and costumes to perfection. Josh Bessom’s sound design is never anything less than topnotch. Judi Lewin did the groovy hair and wig designs and Martin P. Robinson designed the puppets for the Broadway revival. Terry Hanrahan is assistant stage manager, David Cruise technical director, Buck Mason production manager, Lisa Palmire production stage manager, and Julia Flores casting director.

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 revivals, or the Broadway tour which played the Ahmanson. This McCoy Rigby Entertainment production may well top them all. There’s nothing quite like seeing a big-stage musical with performers the caliber of Ryback, Margherita, and Edwards in starring roles. With director Kite proving himself as adept at musicals as he is at drama, La Mirada’s Little Shop Of Horrors makes for one fantabulous musical theater treat.

La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Boulevard, La Mirada.
–Steven Stanley
April 16, 2011
Photos: Michael Lamont

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