A silly show deserves silly actors, and that’s precisely what Little Shop of Horrors gets in its winning appearance at Largo’s New Stage Theatre. Chris Crawford, Alison Burns, John Lombardi and Scott Daniel could hardly be wackier in this tale of a bloodthirsty flower-shop plant, and Ericka Womack-Brown, Eileen B. Lymus-Sanders, and Whitney Drake are just about perfect as the girl-group dispensing musical commentary as the action unfolds. Not to be outdone is that man-and-woman-eating vegetable Audrey II herself, a bizarre-looking puppet that gets bigger with every scene and eventually threatens to outgrow the (not so successful) set. Little Shop is pure escapism: it means nothing, illuminates nothing, offers nothing but laughs and some infectiously melodious songs. But if you’re in a mood to forget the challenges of real life, this zany trifle will do the job. Anyway, why should the movies own the franchise on insignificance?
The story of Little Shop (book and lyrics by Howard Ashman, music by Alan Menken) takes place in and around Mushnick’s Skid Row Florist, a failing enterprise on the verge of closing up for good. Then shop assistant Seymour shows up with the plant he’s named Audrey II after his beloved though masochistic co-worker, the epically nasal Audrey I. Almost instantly the unusual plant — some sort of Venus Fly-Trap, all assume — attracts customers to the store, and what looked like a lost cause promises to turn a robust profit. There’s only one problem: Audrey II, Seymour discovers, has a yen for human blood.
At first the charismatic carnivore is satisfied with drippings from Seymour’s fingers. But her hunger grows with each feeding — which brings us to the subplot. Audrey (the woman) is routinely abused by her sadistic dentist lover Oren. The dentist is obnoxious; the plant is hungry; the opportunity presents itself; the deed is done. From here on, Audrey II will demand more and more human lives. No one is safe, not even the plant’s adorable namesake.
And Alison Burns is adorable. This radiant actress never seems to give a bad performance, from the first time I saw her on the Jaeb stage at the Straz Center (then TBPAC) to her present incarnation as a comically insecure pin-cushion, she’s been sharp and professional and apparently fearless. Her Audrey comes from a New Jersey of the comedic mind: speaking most of her dialogue through her nose, excusing her broken limbs with the explanation that she doesn’t deserve better, Burns is wonderfully sympathetic and ridiculous at the same time.
As earnest Seymour, Crawford is just as splendid. In his red baseball cap and clunky glasses (designed by Scott Daniel), he deftly persuades us that his transformation into Audrey II’s homicidal accomplice is a reluctant one, and that even the ensuing murder spree doesn’t compromise his essential innocence. Then there’s John Lombardi as Mr. Mushnick, a desperately unsuccessful shnook who’s so grateful to Seymour for rescuing his business that he decides to adopt him. (As he sings, “I used to think you left a stench/But now I think that you’re a mensch.”)
As the maniacally abusive Oren, Daniel is wonderfully sinister, not least when he’s snorting laughing gas. And as the shoop-shoop girl group, Womack-Brown, Lymus-Sanders, and Drake provide an energy and an excellence that wouldn’t be out of place on a much larger stage. Calvin C. Jones, as the voice of Audrey II, is hilarious. Chris Jackson’s direction is superb.
If there’s a weakness, it’s Ty Fickes’ set: supposed to represent a down-at-heel flower shop on the wrong side of the tracks, instead it just looks like a disheveled backstage storage room. I wish I could say that this glitch hardly matters, but the truth is, it undermines almost everything that appears on it. Still, these performers won’t be denied, not even by a mediocre set: they romp through their comedy with the resolve of true believers, and they’re a pleasure to behold. Deserving of praise too is Jerid Fox, who as Audrey II’s puppeteer delivers some of the show’s best belly-laughs. He also designed, along with Joel Gennari, the several puppets.
Looking for distraction? Little Shop delivers abundantly. It’s original, beautifully acted and exceedingly ridiculous. See it if you think that reality is over-rated.
Gender essentialism. Thumbs down.
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