Feed me. FEED ME!! You’ll hear the screams loud and clear as Olney Theatre Center lands a smashing success with an out of this world production of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s Little Shop of Horrors. The story: boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl, boy meets plant from outer space, plant from outer space is hungry; for blood. And the hilarious chaos ensues from there. With Director Mark Waldrop and Musical Director Ross Scott Rawlings leading the way into new horizons, this cosmic musical will take you on a trip like you’ve never seen before.
I’m no botanist but I imagine that giving life to a giant people-eating plant that has as much charm and charisma as Audrey II cannot be easy. Puppeteers Eric Brooks and Elliott Davis are responsible for all of the motion and dancing that makes this insane intergalactic triffid the centerpiece of the show. Brooks and Davis make magic as Audrey II’s mouth opens and shuts to sing, shout, and most importantly eat. It’s astonishing to see this enormous plant, which consumes a good portion of the stage, moving about as its very own character and Brooks and Davis ensure that in its two larger stages that Audrey II is a science fiction reality for all to see.
And that’s not to say that Set Designer James Fouchard doesn’t have his work cut out for him. Creating a convincing flower shop around a gigantic plant isn’t easy but he manages to do so in such a way that all the details of the shop can still be seen even when the plant has outgrown itself. Fouchard gives us great derelict metal staircases that descend from nowhere in particular as if Skid Row were literally at the bottom of the city food chain. This also creates clever entrances for the doo-wop trio when they slide in to songs unseen.
Director Mark Waldrop brings together a tight-knit cast of talented performers to add the extra levels of comedy to this galactic farce. His casting choices are perfect fits to the characters and he coaxes perfect comic timing from everyone, especially Orin, the dentist. Waldrop’s work combined with Musical Director Ross Scott Rawlings’ efforts makes this the best musical of Olney’s 2011-2012 season.
We’re reminded of a time not so distant from our own with the constant doo-wop style echoed in many of the songs performed by the three back-up girls. This notion is reinforced with the choreography of Vince Pesce, numbers like “Skid Row” and “Da-Doo” being coupled with sweet shuffles, soft-step sways, and clap rhythm moves for Chiffon, Crystal, and Ronnette. And those three girls bring their own level of sugary cuteness to the role of ever-present back-up singers. Chiffon (Kara-Tameika Watkins), Crystal (Shaunte Tabb), and Ronnette (Leayne C. Freeman) are three classy ladies who put a personal pep in each of the songs they sing. Appearing almost always out of nowhere to add gorgeous background harmonies to numbers like “Git It” and “Suddenly Seymour” the ladies provide vocally vibrant sounds every time they sing. Watkins, Tabb, and Freeman are the driving force behind many of the musical numbers and have an elegant sass to their approach.
While most of everybody else is mastered by one man, there is one man that is all his own. Mushnik (Ethan Watermeier) makes a stereotype out of his character, giving us the kvetching old Jewish man whose business is on the down and out. Watermeier uses a subtle but flawless accent to maintain this character and gives us a deep shift in his attitude during “Mushnik & Sons” almost becoming predatory when trying to ensure that Seymour will stay with him. He adds a great quirk to the show and provides entertainment outside of the main characters in his own unique way.
Audrey II (voiced by Stephawn Stephens) wouldn’t be as terrifying or as electrifying without the rich baritone voice provided by Stephens. He lets the creature exude a commanding attitude when barking orders at Seymour and is vocally hypnotic when he starts to sing. Numbers like “Suppertime” and “Git It” are wildly entertaining as Stephens power packs attitude and a funky style into the lyrics to make this vegetable one bad-ass mean green mother from outer space.
The singing stars of the show are found in the boy and the girl. Seymour (James Gardiner) is the nerdy little kid from Skid Row without a hope in the world. Gardiner masters the nasally high-head voice that gives his character a little extra bout of being pathetic. He focuses his physicality on the clumsy side of the line and manages to make Seymour just that extra bit dorkier with worrisome glances and covert smiles at both Audrey and Audrey II. Gardiner pours his heart out in the opening of “Suddenly Seymour” trying to prove he’s the man for Audrey.
The audience is treated to an adorable duet between Gardiner and the love interest, Audrey (Carolyn Agan) during “Call Back In The Morning” where the pair complete each other’s harmonies perfectly. Agan is the epitome of the ditzy dumb blonde who can’t see love staring her in the face because she’s too wound up with her ‘past.’ Her rendition of “Somewhere That’s Green” is the picturesque dream of hope with subtle comic quirks worked in through her intonation at the appropriate moments. For the duration of the show Agan carries her character in a squeaky head voice but when it comes to “Suddenly Seymour” she lets loose a belt that you wouldn’t think possible from her frail character. It blows the audience away and sends them into a frenzy of applause.
And last but not least is the man, or men, of the hour Bobby Smith. Being entrusted with the roles of everyone else in the show, his big break comes from one of Broadway’s baddest villains. Smith owns the role of Orin the dentist making him every bit the slimy, sleazy scumbag that he’s meant to be. With a nod to the original Broadway villain Smith hums Sweeney’s familiar song the first time we encounter him in his dental shop. He is the perfect exemplification of evil incarnate, making Audrey II seem like a walk in the park. Smith is one sick puppy with his number “Be A Dentist,” delighting in the horrors and pain he can cause people with his profession. Smith practically steals the show with his other character embodiments that simply have to be seen to be believed.
Olney Theatre Center’s Little Shop of Horrors is a brilliant production with a gorgeous score and an amazing cast. So get your tickets before they are gobbled up for this limited run. But whatever you do, remember – DON’T FEED THE PLANTS or miss this show!
Running Time: Two hours with one intermission.
Little Shop of Horrors plays through August 26, 2012 at the Olney Theatre Center – 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, in Olney, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (301) 924-3400, or purchase them online.