Seymour (Grant Sorenson) and Audrey (Maeve Moynihan) in 7th House Theater's production of Little Shop of Horrors; photography by Kelly Nelson
If I’m being honest, I start out having very few defenses against a musical that includes a phrase like “Shang a lang, feel the sturm and drang in the air” or that would rhyme “Audrey” and “tawdry.” If you’d told me when I was younger that I’d become a huge fan of a musical based on a Roger Corman B-movie about a guy who agrees to feed blood to a talking plant that promises to make him famous and win the girl of his dreams, I’d probably have given you a weird look. But even though drops of blood inevitably lead to human bodies as the main course for this hungry alien plant, I am nonetheless a huge fan of this weird love story/sci-fi/horror hybrid. And because I am such a fan of Little Shop of Horrors, if you screw it up, I can be pretty unforgiving. Thank goodness 7th House Theater is doing Little Shop then. Because it’s fantastic.
“Little red dots all over the linoleum.”
The strange thing is, the production seems to be repeatedly daring me to turn against it. There are a fair number of artistic choices here that are highly unconventional and risk losing the audience. They had to win me over any number of times. Part of my brain was just watching and enjoying the show and hearing the songs again, while another part of my brain was saying, “Wait, why are they doing that? I’m not sure that’s going to work. That’s not what I’m used to.” But they pulled it off, every single time.
“Underneath the bruises and handcuffs, you know what I saw? A girl that I respected.”
First, this is a straight up lily-white cast. Which doesn’t seem weird if you’re doing Oklahoma. But the three ladies who act as a Greek chorus for this funky little tragedy are traditionally styled after the all black doo-wop girl groups of the 1950s and 1960s. That’s not to say 7th House’s trio of Gracie Anderson, Liz Hawkinson, and Catherine Noble can’t and don’t sing the heck out of this thing. They do. And generally the idea of relegating the black characters to supporting roles and backup singer status in the original isn’t exactly breaking down barriers either. However, there’s the expectation, right or wrong. How do they deal with it? They point out that, yeah, it’s a little ridiculous. Sticking to the opening lyrics of “Downtown (Skid Row)” one of the ladies deadpans the line, “Sing it, child” and they admit the joke’s on them here. This is still the production choice my brain struggled with the most for some reason throughout the play, but because they were well aware it was a stretch and didn’t try to pretend it wasn’t, I was willing to play along.
“If I had a mother, she’d be so happy.”
Then there’s the framework they hung the production concept on. 7th House took an ensemble approach to the staging, not having a single person in the role of director. Sometimes people collectively come up with good ideas, sometimes they don’t. "Art by committee" is rarely used as a positive turn of phrase. However, there is still the sure hand of Robert Frost as the musical director, which insures that everyone is singing at the same level with consistency, which is important. Frost mans the piano and performs as part of the singing/acting ensemble as well.
“Oh the things we’re gonna do to your mouth.”
Here, they’ve decided not just to tell the story straightforwardly as it’s laid out in the script. Always a dicey proposition. The only actors assigned a single role are Grant Sorenson as Seymour, the orphaned nebbish working a failing florist shop in the bad part of town, and Maeve Moynihan as Audrey, the slightly ditzy co-worker for whom Seymour secretly pines. Everyone else in the ensemble plays multiple roles, all outfitted in the white lab coats of scientists. The premise, set up through rudimentary overhead projections, is that Seymour and Audrey are somehow test subjects of these unnamed scientists. These scientists are observing human behavior for reasons that are never spelled out because, well, frankly there’s nothing in the script to back it up. It probably has to do with play’s central premise of “what would you sell your soul for?” What thing or person do you want so badly that you’d be willing to do horrible things you’d otherwise never consider? The old Faustian bargain, deal with the devil scenario—this time played out with an alien plant from outer space that feeds on human flesh and blood. The scientists study their test subjects in action, prompting them along by creating the environment around them and seeing how they respond, like rats in a maze looking for that bit of cheese.
“Does this look inanimate, pal?!”
Wisely, they don’t belabor the scientist framing device. They establish it quickly up front, they carry it through, and in the end, the function of narrator that the girl group doo-wop singers serve in the original dovetails nicely with the idea that these overseers are presenting the results of their studies as some kind of warning. Laying the concept out in words like this after the fact and reading over it, it sounds borderline pretentious even to me, but I have to admit that because they handle it with a light touch, it works.
“I know Seymour’s the greatest,
But I’m dating a semi-sadist.”
The ensemble approach to performing all the characters surrounding Seymour and Audrey has a lot of advantages. Seymour and Audrey’s boss Mr. Mushnik is indicated by a mustache on a stick, and this mustache is passed around among all the other cast members throughout the show. In one big musical number, the ensemble is able to become a whole chorus of Mushniks pleading with Seymour to let them adopt him as their son.
“This could be bigger than hula hoops!”
Rather than have a single voice performing for the man-eating plant Audrey 2 (which Seymour names after the girl he loves), the ensemble strategy kicks in again. The women ditch their white lab coats for black dresses underneath, and the men join in, too, as they’re available. This makes both the scale and volume of the killer plant more imposing, which is particularly important because another risky choice in this production is that we never see an actual plant that is supposed to be the ominous, carnivorous Audrey 2.
“When I die, which will be very shortly…”
That’s right, no enormous puppet of some mutant venus fly trap. Productions over the years have become an unwittingly slave to the puppet idea, to the point where it never occurred to me you could find away to do without it. 7th House does. Audrey 2, the murderous plant, is represented by a cardboard box. A box supposed to contain the alien seedling that will be Audrey 2. At first, a tiny box. Then as Audrey 2 grows, so does the size of the box needed to contain it. There is some minor puppetry involved when Audrey 2 first speaks. The medium size box Audrey 2 has grown into hops up and down on the counter and changes position as the ensemble gives it voice for its signature song “Feed Me (Git It)” that closes the first act. Audrey 2 goes through another box size or two, but for the final confrontation, that’s when the box gambit really pays off. We get a slowly growing wall of cardboard, meant to represent just a single side of Audrey 2’s new box, filling the proscenium arch and disappearing out of sight above the stage line. It’s a gutsy low-tech move, and against all odds, it works.
“Don’t you ‘Mr. Daddy’ me!”
You know what else is a gutsy move? Moving the Prologue title song “Little Shop of Horrors” from the start of the play to the middle of the play. When they kicked off the performance with the “Downtown (Skid Row)” song, my first thought was “Wait a minute! Where’s the prologue? They can’t cut the prologue. I love that song!” Turns out they love it, too. They just make us wait for it. Now “Little Shop of Horrors” happens after the first of the actual horrors—the first big murder to help feed bloodthirsty Audrey 2, which happens at top of the second act. It works there as well. It also has the added benefit of having already softened us up with a whole first act of white girls singing doo-wop, so the cognitive dissonance is reduced hearing it later in this particular production.
“I sign these contracts, that means I’m willing to keep on doing bloody, awful, evil things.”
7th House even handles the gore inventively, and with restraint. With horror, it’s always hard to know how much is too much, and how little is not enough. This production strikes a nice balance. They lead off with a few simple blood drops into a petri dish presented on the overhead projector—in time with the music, no less (“Grow For Me”). In act two when the bodies start dropping, they introduce a clear plastic shower curtain. Members of the ensemble splatter one splash of blood across the curtain when someone meets their maker. When people get directly splattered with blood in similar fashion toward the end of the show, the audience knows what it means.
“Though I giggle and I chortle, it doesn’t mean that I’m immortal.”
Of course, all this high concept stuff wouldn’t matter if the central performances didn’t work. But Grant Sorenson and Maeve Moynihan are perfect as Seymour and Audrey. How that tiny little body of Sorenson’s houses the serious lung power he unleashes on these songs I don’t know, but he’s a great (and suitably awkward) leading man here. Moynihan fully embraces Audrey’s dimness and low self-esteem, so when she dares to sing of her dreams in her big number “Somewhere That’s Green,” it’s a beautiful moment of hope. The duet “Suddenly Seymour,” when they finally come together as a couple, is the emotional high point of the show that it should be, making you think they might just survive this nightmare if they stick together.
“It’s nice to meet me. The pleasure is yours.”
As the human part of their love triangle, and the main villain of the first act, David Darrow as Orrin is terrific at being horrible as Audrey’s abusive boyfriend the sadistic dentist. Darrow’s so good at playing a sociopath that I’m kind of afraid of getting on his bad side in real life. The guy can be scary when we wants to be. Seymour trying to battle Orrin to save Audrey is clearly in over his head. Darrow also provides the guitar (and trumpet, and cymbal, and tambourine) to flesh out the musical score in conjunction with Frost’s piano work (Frost gets in on the multi-instrument action when he breaks out a melodica for the big Mushnik number). The choice of when to lead with piano vs. lead with guitar and when to blend the two led to some really intriguing treatments of the songs that I found myself quite liking.
“Nothing fancy like Levittown.”
And now I’m going to carbon date myself. Between the time the musical premiered onstage in 1982 and the time the movie version came out in 1986, AIDS had blown up into a terrifying, seemingly unstoppable epidemic. The year the movie came out, President Reagan finally got around to mentioning AIDS publicly for the first time—five years into the epidemic. Little Shop’s book writer and lyricist Howard Ashman and his music composing partner Alan Menken went on after Little Shop to give Disney’s animation studio a musical reboot with The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and the beginnings of what would become Aladdin. The year before Ashman and Menken won an Academy Award for Best Song in 1989 for one of the two tunes nominated from The Little Mermaid, Howard Ashman was diagnosed with AIDS. By the time they were nominated twice again in 1991 for songs from Beauty and The Beast (and won again), Ashman was dead. AIDS prompted ACT UP which brought gay people out of the closet screaming like their lives depended on it, because they did. Gay people became part of the national dialogue in the worst possible way, over a decade before Will and Grace or Queer As Folk. In the 1980s, we were still in hiding, still a dirty secret, and it stayed that way until it just wasn’t sustainable anymore. In those years before the carnage, for a certain breed of theater geek (say, going to the college in the midwest, for instance), musicals like Little Shop of Horrors, and songs like “Suddenly Seymour” were the only kind of anthems we could afford to have. Now I’m sitting here, in 2014, watching 7th House Theater tackle this material, and I’m just so grateful that most, hell, probably all of these artists, never had to live in the world like that. “Suddenly Seymour” is, well, just a good song in a weird but well-written musical by a guy who’s dead now. Who’s been dead longer than a lot of young performers in theater now have even been alive. But he was 40. To paraphrase Tom Lehrer speaking about Mozart, “It is a sobering thought that by the time Howard Ashman was my age, he had already been dead nine years.” Can you imagine the things we might have gotten from 24 more years of Howard Ashman? He’d only be 64, if he were still with us.
But the work survives in a new context, getting tweaked by artists with new ideas. Trust me when I say that if someone was going to be unflinchingly resistant to some of the tricks 7th House plays here, it’d probably be me. But these folks know what they’re doing. The reimagining comes from a place of a respect, and the feeling that the work can take it. That we can see it with new eyes, hear it with new ears, and maybe that makes the source material that much more alive. I may not have ever considered doing any of these things to Little Shop myself, but I’m damn glad they did.
(And it makes me very sad I’m going to be out of town visiting family the next time 7th House hits the stage, over in the Dowling Studio at the Guthrie Theater complex, December 19-28, with an original musical retelling of the legend of Jonah and the Whale. I can only imagine how much fun that’s going to be. If you’re going to be around, mark your calendars now and be sure to see it.)
Right now, catch Little Shop of Horrors while you still can. It’s a wonderful piece of entertainment.
5 stars - Very Highly Recommended
506 E. 24th St.