The prodigiously talented students of USC’s Musical Theatre Repertory join forces to produce, direct, perform in, and design one of MTR’s absolute best productions to date, an almost perfect intimate theater revival of the Broadway/cult classic Little Shop Of Horrors that more than holds its own against the finest professional productions in town.
Like the very best of its predecessors (Sunday In The Park With George, Hello Again, The Wild Party, and Urinetown) and this past year’s The Drowsy Chaperone, Little Shop Of Horrors makes abundantly clear that with students as gifted as these young Trojans in charge, little more than faculty blessing is needed to create as exciting a Little Shop as this reviewer has seen.
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.
USC sophomore Patrick Reilly is Seymour Krelborn, an adorable 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 (A.J. Helfet) has informed his two and only employees, Seymour and bimbo-with-a-heart-of-gold Audrey (Sarah May Scotti), 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 lovely 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. (David Mandell), 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.
Aspiring Trojan film director Brandon Baer proves a terrific choice to direct Little Shop, inserting inspired cinematic bits throughout, from awarding elderly Chinese flower district florist Chang (Da-Doo) his very own flashback cameo (along with a heretofore unseen tiny sprout of an Audrey II), to a holding-his-breath scene for Mushnik and Seymour that extends its comic suspense potential to side-splitting extremes, to having Chiffon, Crystal, and Ronnette keep popping up Greek Chorus-style in the flower shop’s big upstage picture window.
Choreographer Charlotte Wen’s dance steps are among the most inventively styled as any I’ve seen in a Little Shop production, from the dropout urchins’ opening prologue all the way through to a deliciously tangoed “Mushnik And Son” and the Finale Ultimo of “Don’t Feed The Plants.”
Reilly is so utterly winning a Seymour and sings those Menken-Ashman songs with such gorgeous pipes that big things are clearly on the horizon for the star quality-blessed young Trojan. The lovely Scotti plays it straighter as Audrey than most, and while the comic possibilities of a more broadly drawn “dumb blonde” Audrey are missed, hers is a valid approach, particularly opposite Reilly’s less stereotypically nerdy Seymour.
Surrounding characters are played to the hilt each and every one, and the show is all the more delightful for their presence, beginning with Helfet’s hilarious take on a Mushnik who would be every bit as comfortable doing standup on the Borscht Belt circuit as running a Skid Row flower shop. Mandell’s Orin manages to be both outrageously over-the-top and delicately shaded at the same time, quite a feat for a performer with big things ahead. Elizabeth Adabale (Ronnette), Jade Johnson (Crystal), and Wen (Chiffon) are such all-around fabulous singers, dancers, and comediennes that they actually outshine some of the more experienced Urchins who have gone before them.
Director Baer divides the five cameo roles usually played by “Orin” among four cast members (including Mandell), a savvy decision in a student production—the better to spread the wealth—and one that leads to at least one terrific first-time-ever moment. Tyler Miclean makes for an amusingly eccentric flower shop customer (the character who sets the tale in motion) and is even more amusingly quirky as fast-talking NBC exec Mr. Bernstein. Claire Adams takes Life Magazine editor’s wife Mrs. Luce and turns her into a divinely delicious man-eater of a matron. Kevin Paley not only plays the abovementioned Chang (Da-Doo) but returns slick and scene-stealing as super agent Skip Snip. (The added bonus of having three different actors playing Bernstein, Luce, and Snip is that we get to see them all on stage at once!) Finally, Mandell returns in rib-ticklingly nerdy form as opportunistic entrepreneur Patrick Martin.
A backstage Segun Oluwadele provides the sensationally soulful vocal stylings of Audrey II, with Madigan Stehly making for one of the most inventively puppeteered Audrey IIs ever.
Music director Anthony Lucca not only elicits fabulous vocal work from his oh-so talented cast, he conducts and plays piano in quite possibly the biggest (and best) live backstage orchestra I’ve heard at an MTR show: Austin Chanu—Reed I, Rob Speppard—Reed II, Dan Fox—Trumpet, Henry Was—Percussion, Greg Hartman—drums, Stephanie Moy—Keyboard II, Ethan Sherman and Jesse Sullivan—Guitar, and Santino Tafarella—Bass.
I absolutely loved Victoria Tam’s ingeniously three-dimensional set design (which stands up against any you’ll see in a 99-seat production) and Hanna Kim’s marvelous bevy of costumes. David Hernandez’s lighting design is mostly quite effective, but could be fine-tuned in several scenes that are a tad too dimly lit. Sound designer Emma Bramble and co-sound designer Danielle Kisner get thumbs up for insuring that we hear the cast’s mostly un-amped voices over the larger-than-usual orchestra.
Stehly is technical director, Ricky Moreno stage manager, Ali Wuerfel assistant stage manager, and Rebecca A. Esquivel production manager. Also receiving program credit are Nicole Jaffe (poster design) and Alex Underwood (crew).
MTR Artistic Directors for 2012-13 are Baer (president/treasurer), Esquivel (production manager), Wen (PR manager), Arielle Fishman (secretary), and members at large D.J. Blickenstaff, Matthew McFarland, Stehly, and Hannah Kim.
From its foundation in 2005, Musical Theatre Repertory has given USC students the opportunity to not only perform (as they do in the once-a-year Spring Musical) but to direct, choreograph, music direct, and design—behind-the-scenes roles traditionally assigned to faculty members. Though its founders and a half-dozen graduating classes-worth of members have left MTR for careers in the arts, their successors are every bit as talented as their Trojan forbears. You may see more experienced talents on our professional local stages, but you won’t see many who can top those behind this sensational Little Shop Of Horrors, a production that is “student” in name only.
Massman Theatre at USC.
October 4, 2012