The timing of Vagabond Players’ production of Little Shop of Horrors is fortuitous, opening Halloween weekend when thoughts turn to the spooky and macabre, and running through November 25, before the mood sweetens for giving thanks and gifts. Outside the historic Vagabond Theatre, young adults strolled the cobblestone streets of Fells Point dressed as superheroes and vampires, while an elderly man garbed as a pirate told ghost tales.
Vagabond Theatre is an intimate venue, the better to see the action unfolding onstage. Opening night it had a full house, eager for some bloody good theater.
As directed by Eric C. Stein, a regular on the Vagabond playbill, and choreographed by Angela Stein, the show is fast-paced, humorous, horrific and fun. The classic musical’s book and lyrics are by Howard Ashman and the music is by Alan Menken. It is based on the 1960 film by Roger Corman and screenplay by Charles Griffith.
This writer saw the original production at the Orpheum Theatre on Manhattan’s lower Second Avenue years ago, before the 1986 movie version with Rick Moranis and Steve Martin, and looked forward to seeing if the show had gotten creaky with age. It hasn’t. It’s still a laugh riot. The musical’s small cast, particularly Stephen M. Deininger as Orin the crazed, abusive dentist-motorcyclist, and in three other roles, keep the audience on the edge of their seats with their delivery of the rock musical songs, jokes and Yiddish accents of a long-gone (and now gentrified) section of lower Manhattan.
The set by Joel Selzer, lit by designer Charlie Danforth, depicts a grimy, rundown and worn out section of an old lower Manhattan slum neighborhood known as Skid Row or the Bowery. The audience initially sees a storefront, with its big moldy display window angled against a townhouse façade with a stoop. The storefront, aided by the actors and stagehands, is cleverly crafted to silently roll out, revealing the interior of the bedraggled Mushnik florist shop.
Meanwhile, the live band of a half-dozen talented musicians is sequestered behind the townhouse set. They totally rocked the audience.
The show opens with an unseen speaker warning of a brief, total eclipse of the sun and fears of an alien invasion. That gloomy thought is offset as the upbeat street chorus – Crystal, Chiffon and Ronnette (Renata Hammond, Amber Hooper and Darlene Harris) – enter, singing the doo-wop prologue “Little Shop of Horrors,” as they step over and around several slumbering (or, ahem, otherwise occupied) derelicts. With their motley crewmates, they segue into “Skid Row (Downtown)” as the story begins to unfold.
The plotline quickly develops. Seymour (Quentin Patrick), abandoned as an orphaned infant and taken in by Mushnik (John Sheldon) in a form of servitude as his shop assistant, is miserable and lonely. In his abject misery, he slouches and rounds his shoulders, looking wimpy and far shorter than his full height.
The grubby shop is flailing and failing, and Mushnik is about to shut it down for good and toss Seymour into the street. Another shop worker, Audrey (Ryan Gunning), has a similarly downtrodden life and, lately, has acquired a new boyfriend who is dangerously controlling, manipulative, and physically abusive. She is first seen in a body-hugging black dress wit a matching right eye blackened by the boyfriend, Orin. She feels trapped and helpless. As winningly portrayed by Gunning, Audrey doesn’t have the self-confidence to realize she’s a beauty and deserves better. Or that Orin’s handcuffs don’t match her outfit.
She also doesn’t realize Seymour has an unrequited crush on her.
Seymour, an avid plant grower, had been shopping at an outdoor market a few days earlier when the eclipse occurred. He’d already checked out a Chinese plant vendor just as the sun was unexpectedly blacked out, but, when the sunlight returned a moment later, there was a unique plant sitting there he had not seen before. The vendor happily sold it to him.
Seymour called it “Audrey II” or “Two-ey.” He dreams of breeding cuttings of the plant and making a small fortune selling it all over the world.
Audrey, for her part, dreams of living in a suburban area – “though not as nice as Levittown” – in a cookie-cutter style row house scented with PineSol air fresheners, a washer and dryer, a disposal and a grill on the tiny patio in the rear. “I like that they all look alike,” she sighs as she longingly sings “Somewhere That’s Green.”
Audrey II begins to grow rapidly. First seen in a teacup-sized pot, the plant next appears in Seymour’s arms as a humongous, giant cabbage-shaped critter in a gallon pot. It takes a moment to realize the actor, in a sleight of hand and sleeve, is actually manipulating the plant’s “head” like a puppet.
The secret to the plant’s growth gains is soon revealed. It feeds on human blood. Seymour’s blood, which the young man doles out in drops squeezed from his fingers. The feeding practice started when Seymour accidentally pricked his finger on a rose’s thorns and a wilting AudreyII immediately perked up.
When it is suggested Mushnik display Audrey II in the shop window, the shop’s business suddenly zooms upward as people learn of the unusual plant. Seymour finds himself the darling of radio talk shows. TV stations and big-time magazines come calling, too.
While the shop is briefly closed for renovations, Orin appears in a motorcycle jacket and, joined by Chiffon, Crystal, and Ronnette, reveals he is a dentist who revels in hurting his patients. Plus he’s got a thing for nitrous oxide. He’s addicted to it.
Kudos to Ryan Geiger as the deep bass voice of Audrey II, and the punny Torberg M.Tonnessen as the Audrey II manipulator. Once Audrey II grew too big for Seymour’s arms, its later versions were downright scary, intriguing and expertly handled.
Well worth a good look – just not up close!
Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.
Note: Tickets are $25. Inexpensive parking is available at the nearby Caroline Street Garage, 805 South Caroline St.