If you set aside “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s 1982 “Little Shop of Horrors” might be the most popular cult classic of our time.
The team behind “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Little Mermaid,” these creative partners adapted Roger Corman’s 1960 sci-fi movie version of “Little Shop” into a satiric, ghastly and widely adored musical. Menken wrote the music, Ashman the book and lyrics.
With deft direction, a talented cast, superb designs and terrific leads, Rivertown’s production proves this sinister and sweet pastiche is as seductive as ever.
Smartly, Director Gary Rucker has his actors play it straight — free of Disneyesque preciousness and self-indulgent camp. The result is highly entertaining.
On Skid Row in the late 1950s, the lonely and disillusioned orphan Seymour (Bob Murrell) works for food and shelter in the bankrupt florist shop of Mr. Mushnick (Earl J. Scioneaux Jr.). Just as Mushnick is about to close up permanently, Seymour reveals an exotic plant he discovered during an eclipse of the sun. He names the bizarre-looking creature Audrey II after the pretty but lost shop assistant Seymour secretly loves, played by Cherry Bombshell. The human Audrey, suffering from the lowest self-esteem imaginable, is in the grasp of a sadistic dentist, Orin (Bryce Slocumb).
Audrey II flourishes after swallowing a few drops of Seymour’s blood. Now capable of speech, the demanding mutant offers Seymour an irresistible Faustian deal. Seymour can have anything thing his heart desires — fame, fortune, love — if he keeps supplying human blood for the ever-growing plant.
A doo-wop trio of street urchins — Crystal (Christina Early), Chiffon (Drew Johnson) and Ronette (Na’chele Scott) — serve as a Greek chorus sassily narrating the story with Motown-inspired tunes. Once these young talents realize how good they are, all hesitancy will evaporate and their performance will pop with all the sizzle and pizzazz of the ‘60s girl groups they are named for.
There must be a reason why Lindsey Romig’s choreography is so simple and unimaginative, but I could not discern it.
A sublime contribution comes from the live band consisting of Jefferson Turner (music director/keyboards), Steven Kennedy (guitar), Sam Dingle (bass) and Travis Henthorn (drums) placed far and high upstage right. Live accompaniment is not something Rivertown does often, and it's reason enough to attend this production.
With his bow tie, sweater vest and baseball cap, Murrell creates a hapless schlemiel for which the word “nebbish” must have been invented. But his love for Audrey is touching, and his quirky performance anchors the play.
As Audrey, who works in a tight black dress and razor-sharp stilettos, Cherry Bombshell is pitch-perfect and sweetly appealing. This big-voiced Audrey captures the right mix of vulnerability and delightful off-centeredness.
Slocumb brings great energy to the motorcycle-riding, nitrous-oxide sniffing dentist, but try as he might, Orin’s songs don’t measure up to the blockbuster ballads.
This score is not Menken's best. There are only two great songs — “Somewhere that’s Green” (sung by Cherry Bombshell with sincerity over laughs) and “Suddenly, Seymour” (the knockout song of the night and palpable chemistry between Murrell and Bombshell). The rest aren’t as memorable. OK, “Skid Row” is pretty good too.
The much-anticipated puppet plant, Audrey II, does not disappoint. The smoothly sinister, Jabba-the-Hut sized puppet is voiced with wicked jollity by Bryan Demond Williams and manipulated with Cirque du Soleil dexterity by Scott Sauber.
Set designer Ron Goldberg uses the entire stage, creating the multiple areas required with perfect detail. Working in fine concert with the moody lighting designed by the multitasking Sauber and Linda Fried’s 1950s-influenced costumes, this design team creates a nightmarish atmosphere for this macabre fairy tale.
Is it just silliness? No, not at all. At its heart, “Little Shop” is a cautionary story about the price we are willing to pay not only for fortune, fame and love, but ultimately just to be noticed.
Bruce Burgun is a retired theater professor from Indiana University and a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.
"Little Shop of Horrors"
WHEN: Through May 20
WHERE: Rivertown Theaters for the Performing Arts, 325 Minor St., Kenner
TICKETS: $41.51 and up
INFO: (504) 461-9475 or (504) 468-7221.