Inspired direction, imaginative choreography, splendid performances, and an in-the-round stage make Glendale Centre Theatre’s revival of the cult musical classic Little Shop Of Horrors one of the very best of the many this reviewer has seen over the past decade.

 Though a trio of previously reviewed big-stage productions rightfully touted the use of the original National Tour sets and costumes, renting the Broadway design package made for several Little Shops with basically the same look, and truth be told, the show’s humble off-Broadway origins suggest a musical for which bigger is not necessarily better.

Glendale’s 400-seat arena stage, on the other hand, keeps the entire audience within nine rows of the performers, and benefits from an in-the-round staging that inspires, by its very definition, a certain originality in staging, choreography, and design.

All this and more directors Danny Michaels and Orlando Alexander, choreographer Alexander, and GCT’s design team deliver to GCT audiences—and then some, making this Little Shop Of Horrors a real treat, even for the most jaded Little Shop vet.

Cult movie fans first met the “strange and interesting plant” named Audrey II way back in 1960 in Roger Corman’s Z-movie classic, and have learned from frequent late-night screenings that with human flesh on his/her/its? cannibalistic mind, “They may offer you lots of cheap thrills, fancy condos in Beverly Hills, but whatever they offer you, don’t feed the plants!” For Little Shop’s musical adaptation, composer Alan Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman wrote songs every bit as lovely, clever, and catchy as those they created for The Little Mermaid and Beauty And The Beast. As for Ashman’s hilarious book, it gleefully spoofs those Cold War paranoia-inspired ’50s horror flicks in all their red-fearing madness.

 Brenton Schraff is GCT’s 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 (Richard Malmos) has informed his two and only employees, Seymour and bleach blonde bimbo-with-a-heart-of-gold Audrey (Karen Volpe), 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. (Jason Keef), 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.

 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 Glendale Centre Theatre’s Little Shop Of Horrors works so very well on its intimate in-the-round stage.

Director Michaels’ many GCT appearances have made him a whiz at arena staging, and he has his Little Shop cast making ample use of the aisles and every inch of the GCT stage, whether singing, emoting, or moving to Alexander’s freshly choreographed dance steps.

Schraff’s oh-so winning Seymour is instantly likeable, charmingly nerdy, and possessed of pipes ideally suited for tunes like “Grow For Me” and “Suddenly Seymour,” the latter duetted with the divine Volpe, a Downey CLO staple whose Glendale debut ought to move her a step closer to the top-drawer assignments she so richly deserves. With her classic dumb blonde squeak (and platinum wig to match), the role of Audrey further establishes Volpe as a performer of remarkable versatility (as those who’ve seen her Ado Annie, Fanny Brice, and Babe Williams can attest to).

Malmos may well be the best of all the Mushniks I’ve seen so far, his irrepressible shimmying to the beats of “Mushnik And Sons” making that number even more show-stopping than ever. Keef makes a welcome return to GCT for the first time since a trio of 2009 appearances marked him as “one to watch,” this time as a hysterically over-the-top Oren Scrivello DDS as well as the one-two-three punch of Act Two’s fast-talking NBC exec Mr. Bernstein, elegant Life Magazine editor’s wife Mrs. Luce, and slick super agent Skip Snip. Though I can’t help wishing that Keef got to play the two additional roles that are traditionally part of the Oren track, Glendale regular Paul Reid does do terrific work as the eccentric flower shop customer who sets it all in motion and later as opportunistic entrepreneur Patrick Martin.

The ‘60s girl group slash Greek chorus are brought to sassy street life by the splendid trio of Sinead De Vries (Chiffon), Amanda Knight (Crystal), and Katherine Washington (Ronnette), the Urchins’ 1960s harmonies sounding great as they sing or back up the title song, “Skid Row,” “Da-Doo,” “Dentist,” “Suddenly Seymour,” and “The Meek Shall Inherit.”

 Dedrick Bonner voices Audrey II with a big, soulful baritone and Carl Garcia takes charge of Audrey II “manipulation” deep inside the plant.

Musical director Steven Applegate once again gets expert vocal performances from his GCT cast, and the combination of Nathan J. Milisavljevich’s expert sound design and what appears to be a considerably upgraded sound system makes the blend of amplified voices and prerecorded tracks about as surround sound-rich as a sound mix can be. Angela Wood and Glendale Costumes have come up with one winner after another, and it is refreshing to see new designs rather than the same Broadway costumes for the umpteenth time. Lighting director Jeremy Williams scores points again and again with some very ingenious effects, and never more so than when Oren’s dentist chair makes its first appearance, quite literally from the burning fires of hell, aided and abetted by some billowing stage smoke. As for the production’s unbilled scenic design, it is one of GCT’s most resourceful in its use of the entire auditorium, including an Act Two surprise at the top of the stairs. Caitlin Barbieri is stage manager.

Though diehard musical theatergoers’ first reaction to hearing about another Little Shop Of Horrors might be a “Been there, done that, and done that again” groan, Glendale Centre Theatre’s Grade A revival is so fresh and fabulously performed that groans will likely turn to whoops and hollers of delight at its many charms. And for those out there who somehow haven’t yet experienced Little Shop Of Horrors live onstage, they could hardly ask for a better introduction than the topnotch revival currently gracing the GCT stage.

Glendale Centre Theatre, 324 N. Orange St., Glendale.

–Steven Stanley
August 23, 2012

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