Several years before they struck Disney gold with Beauty and the Beast, the musical team of composer Alan Menken and book writer and lyricist Howard Ashman stuck their toes into campy cult waters with 1982’s Little Shop of Horrors, adapted from Roger Corman’s 1960 film The Little Shop of Horrors. The film is famous, among other reasons, for featuring one of Jack Nicholson’s earliest cinematic appearances as a hapless victim of a cruel dentist. The original story inspiring Corman is a question of some dispute, though Arthur C. Clarke’s 1956 short story, “The Reluctant Orchid,” is a strong contender.
Since its off-Broadway premiere, Menken and Ashman’s Little Shop has enjoyed numerous revivals around the globe and was turned into a 1986 film directed by Frank Oz. The tale of a bloodthirsty plant from outer space, Audrey II, which initially provides a financial lifeline for nebbishy flower shop clerk Seymour and his choleric boss (and walking Yiddish dictionary), Mr. Mushnik, is a gleeful and cartoonish exploration of greed and exploitation.
Little Shop of Horrors
Through 10/15: Wed 1:30 and 7 PM, Thu 7 PM, Fri 8 PM, Sat 3 and 8 PM, Sun 1 and 5:30 PM; Paramount Theatre, 23 E. Galena Blvd., Aurora, 630-896-6666, paramountaurora.com, $38-$79
Or at least that’s usually how it’s played. But in Paramount Theatre’s new production under the direction of Landree Fleming, there’s a skosh of wistfulness alongside the carnage. That’s thanks mostly to Teressa LaGamba’s Audrey, the abused girlfriend of dentist Orin (Russell Mernagh) and the namesake for the plant that turns out to be another kind of monster.
LaGamba has a soaring voice, particularly notable in “Somewhere That’s Green” (which rivals that other “Somewhere” song about a rainbow as an ode to dreams). But she’s also skillful at playing two sides of Audrey at once. There’s the girl with a harsh past, which is also echoed here in the street-girl chorus of Chiffon, Crystal, and Ronnette (played by Lydia Burke, Marta Bady, and Tickwanya Jones, respectively), whose costumes by Yvonne Miranda look more like The Deuce than Motown. (It’s set on Skid Row, so that’s appropriate.) And then there’s the good-hearted woman who truly does love Jack Ball’s Seymour and Gene Weygandt’s bad-tempered shop owner. Audrey is the one character who doesn’t lose sight of who she is and never makes excuses for herself, which adds a little dramatic heft to the ending.
Don’t get it twisted: this is still an all-out comedy with great hummable songs and fantastic visuals, especially the ever-growing variations on Audrey II. (A program note says those are “designed and created by Skylight Music Theatre with generous support from Rockwell Automation, in collaboration with Paramount’s Prop Department, and with consultation by Simone Tegge and Mike Oleon.”) Je’Shaun Jackson voices Audrey II with hilarious sinister aplomb, while Adam Fane handles the puppetry duties.
And Ball as Seymour taps into some of the smoldering resentment of the “nice guy” who turns out to be just as capable of dark acts as Mernagh’s swaggering sadist. It’s an interesting dynamic that sometimes feels like it’s in danger of also being swallowed up by the Paramount’s big stage. But Fleming’s sure-footed work here (aided also by Michael George and Mariah Morris’s vivacious choreography) shows she’s just as adept at adding layers and nuance to high-octane musical comedy as she was in last season’s intimate and elegiac Fun Home in Paramount’s smaller space.