Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
Little Shop of Horrors tells the tale of the residents of an early 1960s urban Skid Row. Seymour and Audrey work for Mr. Mushnik in his run-down flower shop that has very few customers. However, when Seymour finds an exotic plant and puts it on display, the customers flock to the store. Seymour soon discovers that his plant, lovingly named Audrey II after his co-worker and girl of his dreams, will only grow and thrive on a diet of human blood. When the plant eventually talks and convinces Seymour to kill people to meet its needs, Seymour must decide whether to put a stop to his misguided behavior or risk losing his newly found fame and wealthand his new love.
The book for Little Shop of Horrors effectively mixes sci-fi fantasy, comedy, and an endearing love story. Most of all, though, it is about human morality and the corruption of one's values in pursuit of material gain and renown. Howard Ashman's fun take on this story is based on the 1960 film by Roger Corman (screenplay by Charles Griffith).
The score with music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Ashman is top notch and extremely fun. Menken provides catchy and lively melodies incorporating musical styles from the period, including doo-wop, soul, and Elvis-inspired rockabilly. Ashman's lyrics are witty, interesting, challenging and accessible. "Downtown (Skid Row)" appropriately establishes the tone and setting of the musical, and also is an appropriate "want song" for Seymour. "Somewhere That's Green" shows Audrey's longing for a better life, combining a tender melody with hilarious lyrics. If the song sounds a lot like "Part of Your World" from The Little Mermaid (currently playing at the Aronoff Center just a mile or so away, it's because the same composer wrote the song and they are indeed similar melodies. "Suddenly Seymour" is Little Shop's most well-known number, and it is a chill-inducing powerhouse duet for Seymour and Audrey. The plant also has some fun numbers including "Feed Me" and "Suppertime."
At Cincy Playhouse, director Bill Fennelly captures the satirical tone of the piece well, and he supplies effective blocking and transitions. He also provides a pace which allows for some consideration of the lyrics and impact of the story, though the flow of the show is occasionally sacrificed as a result (most notably during Orin's entrance). The dances by CCM graduate Kent Zimmerman are fun and period appropriate, though some songs feel over-choreographed. The five-piece band led by Stephen Goers sounds wonderful.
Cincinnati native Nick Cearley returns home to portray Seymour, providing a varied and well-suited take on the role in both his acting and vocals, and clearly showing the desperation of the character. As Audrey, Gina Milo shows off powerful singing pipes, and is empathetic and heartbreaking as the beaten down object of Seymour's affection. Ebony Blake, Johari Nandi, and Alexis Tidwell provide superb vocal support as the sassy street urchins who serve as a Greek chorus for the show. David Meyers (Mushnik) and Jamison Stern (Orin) offer sufficient comic relief in their respective roles, and puppeteer Stephen Kriz Gardner shows great skill in bringing Audrey II to life. As the voice of Audrey II, Chaz Rose is funny and demonstrates powerful and colorful singing throughout.
Playhouse's designs are impressive for Little Shop. The two-tiered set by Michael Schweikardt has lots of nooks and crannies, moves to provide welcome versatility, and conveys the distressed setting aptly. Mr. Schweikardt also crafted the puppets in their various sizes, and they are both comical and menacing. The lighting by William C. Kirkham includes some foreshadowing lightning effects, and has a bit of theatrical flair. The costumes by Kathleen Geldard are character and time appropriate, with some inventiveness for the ending scene.
Little Shop of Horrors is a well-written show with a strong score and story. Though it isn't the sort of challenging musical that Playhouse used to take on regularly, the talented cast, worthwhile direction, and first-rate design make it one that is likely to meet the needs of their audience.
Through February 19, 2017, at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park. For tickets and more information in Cincinnati, call (513) 421-3888 or visit www.cincyplay.com.