Theater review of 'Little Shop of Horrors' at Ford's Theatre
By Nelson Pressley
Wednesday, March 24, 2010
Ford's Theatre is a pretty stately venue for "Little Shop of Horrors," the gleefully twisted musical featuring a man-eating plant and killer doo-wop tunes. And maybe the hallowed halls are having an unintended effect: The earnest new production by Ford's is oddly reserved.
You recall that "Little Shop" is just a gas-- it was an off-Broadway sensation for years in the 1980s, then a movie by Frank Oz that did the show justice. Nowadays even middle-schoolers do it, crooning "Skid Row" and "Feed Me" and figuring out how to stuff actors down the gullet of that pod from outer space.
Those kids may be having more fun than Coy Middlebrook's competent, rather hardworking crew at Ford's. The cast is solid enough, with some chemistry all but guaranteed between Christopher Kale Jones as the nerdy, green-thumbed Seymour and Jenna Coker-Jones as the ditzy, suburb-longing Audrey. The Joneses are husband and wife, and they make a winsome duo, especially singing the loopy love ballad "Suddenly Seymour" together early in the second act.
The laughs are scant, though, and this is a show that should have you in stitches from its B-movie plot (it's based on a cheapo 1960 flick of the same name) right down to the witty backing vocals of the omnipresent girl group. "Little Shop" was always a low-budget lark, a romp through the cliches of schlock movies and pop music; here, it's a sober theatrical revival.
That's notwithstanding the odd green-bean suits and plastic bubble space helmets sported by the girl group as they enter singing the upbeat prologue, or the whirling turntable set fashioned by designer Court Watson. (It would be great if that set evoked spinning records, but it really just rotates the scene from the inside of Mushnik's Skid Row flower shop to the gritty street outside, and back.)
The production doesn't lack for ideas; the playbill interview with Middlebrook indicates how thoroughly he's thought it through. This is what musical directors tend to do these days, since old-fashioned showbiz training is hard to come by anymore. (Song and dance? Not so much.) But you don't really want to contemplate "Little Shop" -- you want to tap your feet and giggle at the movie in-jokes and the knowing, evergreen musical riffs penned by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman.
It's an extremely hardy specimen, though, and the talent onstage seems awfully close to making it bloom. Felicia Curry, Eleasha Gamble and Kara-Tameika Watkins have plenty of lung power and attitude as Ronnette, Chiffon and Crystal; these gals and those appealing Joneses give the performance a stable base. Elliot Dash is in rich voice, singing the part of the ravenous Audrey II (though the lyrics of the plant's dusky, seductive numbers sometimes get washed out in the sound mix), and the puppet work by Scott Hitz and Marc Petrosino is terrifically timed.
You might wish for a more authentic groove from the pit band, however, and for a carefree wiseacre mood that could really float this spoof. "Little Shop" is a show for jokers: Just think of the glorious gag that is "Dentist!" -- the biker-dude number by Audrey's sadistic boyfriend. It should summon something like Marlon Brando in "The Wild One" grabbing the spotlight to croon a Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller hit, but there isn't nearly enough impudent comic abandon in Evan Casey's turn or in the musical staging. No jokers here, and nothing's really wild.
By Alan Menken and Howard Ashman. Directed by Coy Middlebrook. Costumes, Wade Laboissonniere; lights, Chris Lee; music direction, Christopher Youstra; choreography, Karma Camp. With Christopher Bloch. About two hours.