USC’s Musical Theatre Repertory created a high-energy, giggle-inducing, jaw-dropping delight in its production of Little Shop of Horrors this past weekend.
The musical is based on a 1960 B-movie of the same title, notable for a cameo by a young and then unknown, Jack Nicholson. Alan Menken and Howard Ashman (the musical dream-team behind Disney’s Aladdin and The Little Mermaid, among many more) adapted the film for the stage, and the show premiered off-Broadway in 1982. Menken and Ashman’s version was subsequently made into another film in 1986, directed by Frank Oz and starring Rick Moranis and Steve Martin.
The story centers around Seymour, who works in a dilapidated flower shop on Skid Row in Los Angeles and spends his free time experimenting with cross-pollination of exotic plants. One of his projects, dubbed Audrey II after his voluptuous coworker and hopeless crush, struggles to grow until Seymour inadvertently feeds it a drop of his own blood. The plant, which looks like an eerily vibrant Venus Flytrap with monster teeth, grows insanely fast — but only on a diet of human blood. Audrey II becomes so large and impressive that it sparks a resurgence of success in the flower shop and even gains national attention, causing Seymour to resort to murder as a way to ensure that the plant and his own fame continue to grow.
With whip-smart lines, witty lyrics and fun, doo-wop style music, Little Shop of Horrors is pretty much fail-proof, even if a little bizarre. Combine that with a marvelous cast and creative team, and you’ve got a hit on your hands — as the musical demonstrates.
Patrick Reilly, who stars as Seymour, anchors the show with a brilliant performance. His portrayal of a tormented, downtrodden nerd oozes extremely earnest, good-guy, Harry Potter-esque charm. Reilly’s singing stands out as well, particularly in his heartwarming solo, “Grow for Me,” as his chemistry with other actors remains palpable. There wasn’t a moment in the show that he didn’t fill — he held the audience’s attention with his wide-eyed expressions and a twitchy, anxious quality to every movement.
Only the combined effervescence of Elizabeth Adabale, Jade Johnson and Charlotte Wen rival Reilly’s star power. The three spunky, “divalicious” women repeatedly brought down the house as a streetwise spin on a traditional Greek chorus, The Urchins. These ladies deserve a record deal — their vocal riffing prompted countless hollers from the audience. In addition, The Urchins’ every move was well synchronized, making them a pleasure to watch. But this came as no surprise. Wen also served as the show’s choreographer, giving the ladies upbeat and spicy moves to work with.
A. J. Helfet, who earned many laughs as Seymour’s boss and the owner of the flower shop, Mr. Mushnik, also impressed audiences. Helfet’s physical prowess appeared in every bumbling step he took — particularly while dancing. His line delivery remained consistently funny (even if it did pander to Jewish stereotypes a bit). His number with Seymour, “Mushnik and Son,” really allowed both actors to flaunt their training — they sang, danced and slapsticked like pros.
Sarah May Scotti took an unconventional approach in her interpretation of Audrey, downplaying the character’s brassy, coquettish characteristics and instead electing to highlight the vulnerability of a single woman living in a nasty part of town. Scotti’s alternation between wide smile and furrowed brow allowed Seymour’s desperation to take her far from Skid Row to shine through in the scenes the two shared. Further, her pure singing voice made her rendition of “Somewhere That’s Green” incredibly bittersweet.
David Mandell played Orin, Audrey’s lowlife boyfriend and a sadistic dentist with an addiction to laughing gas. Mandell’s insane cackle, fierce eyes and booming voice made for an outlandish and terrifying villain. His songs were highly entertaining, although the huge laughing gas apparatus that he wore for his last song muffled many of his lines.
Segun Oluwadele lent his voice to Audrey II (Oh yeah, the plant talks — and sings). Every smooth utterance garnered wild applause from the audience, and for good reason — this man is talented. Much like the ladies of The Urchins, Oluwadele performed vocal acrobatics with grace and pizzazz. His numbers electrified, prompting a did-he-really-just-hit-that-note sense of reverence from audience members. If only Audrey II could sing in every song.
Oluwadele’s voice, however, wasn’t the only impressive aspect of Audrey II. In Little Shop of Horrors, Audrey II spreads and grows to enormous heights as he consumes his victims, requiring top-notch creativity and skill from the technical team. USC’s production rose to the challenge: working magic onstage with well-designed ever-growing puppets, the portrayal of the carnivorous plant was nothing short of amazing.
But the production shone in other aspects, as well. In fact, the success of this cohesive production relied heavily on the orchestra. The musicians, particularly the percussionists and reeds, infused the show with the sort of energy that only comes from bombastic live music. The show felt like it had a human pulse — even an awkward bit of blocking went mostly undetected since it was underscored by flawless-sounding music. With such a lively score, thank goodness the creative team didn’t elect to use a canned soundtrack.
In addition, the costumes were wonderful (particularly Audrey’s wardrobe full of hot pink and animal prints) and the lighting effectively enhanced the mood of each scene. The set, complete with broken crates and graffiti, evoked a truly grim Skid Row, drawing audiences into the grim but hilarious world of Seymour and Audrey.
Considering just how good the show was, it would come as no surprise if audience members couldn’t stop hearing Oluwadele’s voice softly growling “feed me” as they returned home.