ArtsCentric’s Little Shop Of Horrors, a bouquet of beauty, lush with rich vocals, indicates a growth of collective greatness at MotorHouse and beyond. I’m sorry you missed it. It was amazing and fabulous. From the graffiti-alley entrance until the final note of the final song, ArtsCentric’s production of Little Shop Of Horrors was a grand good time.
Of Little Shop, ArtsCentric’s webpage promised “gospel, pop, and rock as only ArtsCentric can do, this reimagined immersive production is not one to be missed.” This increased my blood pressure just a tic, and conjured a hope that nobody would ask me to sing: “immersive,” a hot trend in live theatre, isn’t very well defined. I needn’t have worried: in this instance, “immersive” means a mini stage at each end, and a performance corridor parallel to the long walls, bisecting the audience seating.
Little Shop Of Horrors, originally a 1960 horror-comedy B-film written and directed by Roger Corman and Charles Griffith, gained enough cult following that in 1982, it was adapted into an Off-Broadway musical with book and lyrics by Howard Ashman, and music by Alan Menken. It subsequently was made into a Frank Oz-directed musical film of the same name, with understandably movie-specific changes.
Scriptwriter Howard Ashman gives us snappy dialogue which is clever, clear and expositional in a smooth and uncontrived way. Cues for Alan Menken’s songs are obvious and appropriate, and the songs themselves, musically and lyrically, are just delightful.
It begins with a basic underdog-makes-it-big plot with a side of romance, liberally seasoned by gritty urban comedy. Toss in the ever-popular “aliens-take-over-planet-Earth” trope and some genuinely funny death sequences, et voila! -an enduringly beloved musical is born. Self-described as “a color-conscious organization,” ArtsCentric’s cast is also varied in age, body-positive, full of talent–raw, polished and evolving–and demonstrates an inclusiveness that’s both admirable and worth emulating.
In the capable directorial hands of ArtsCentric’s Artistic Director Kevin McAllister, Little Shop Of Horrors delivers as promised, and then some. Little Shop Of Horrors is a perennial favorite among musicals, and a ‘70s Blaxploitation take on it is twistedly inspired. Kudos to Costume Designer Alison Johnson: she gets the ‘70s right, and has clearly done her homework. Seymour, played endearingly by Ricardo Blagrove, feels like he jumped out of a 70s TV show, Patrick Casimir, convincingly portraying Orin Scrivello, could have just stepped from the set of “Uptown Saturday Night.” Our touchstone trio, Andrea Gerald, Raquel Jennings, and Kanysha Williams, playing Ronnette, Chiffon, and Crystal, respectively, with sass, verve, and beautiful dance moves, are outfitted throughout as streetwise, sultry, salty, supernatural.
Kayla Wheeler as Audrey is adorable and hilarious, with impressive physical comedy skills. Ensemble cast members are versatile, switching costume pieces and postures as required. One standout is Pam Ward, whose first notes for “Skid Row” are chill-inducing, and she is a strong vocal presence throughout the show.
Motor House was transformed into a graffiti-besmirched Skid Row, the setting for most of Little Shop Of Horrors. Examples of Scenic Designer Emily Lotz’s maximization of the playing area include staging space at each end of a divided audience, forming a capital I, platforms that pull out like dresser drawers, and an illuminated horror-enhancing window. All augment the aesthetic of a small, niche-y theater into an edgy, watch-worthy production. Choreographer Shalyce Hemby gives the cast moves that make them look Fine, yes, with a capital F, and if it’s occasionally slightly distracting, it sure makes up for that in sheer brilliance.
Alan Menken’s musical numbers include doo-wop and Motown stylings from the outset. Adding gospel/soul/funk elements to the production is really not a stretch, and works beautifully in several of the numbers. Musical Director Cedric Lyles serves up some rich new arrangements while keeping the songs recognizable, (a woman behind me sang along) and the cast had the audience enraptured from the opening notes. The live band (with Lyles conducting and on keyboard) is stashed somewhere offstage, and only occasionally drowns the vocals. This might be a balance issue, adjustable by sound techs, but since techs deserve nothing but praise, you didn’t hear that here.
If you haven’t seen an ArtsCentric production, you’ve got a wonderful new experience ahead of you. This company is doing theatre as it ought to be done.
Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes, with one intermission.
Little Shop of Horrors, presented by ArtsCentric, played through August 17, 2019, at Motor House, 120 W. North Avenue, Baltimore, MD.
Ryan Gholson, Mr. Mushnik; Jhermaine Drakeford, Audrey II; Catrina Brenae, Pam Ward, Caelyn Sommerville, IO Brown, Avery Pearsall, Elijah Ali, Jordan Essex, Baron Singleton, Ensemble.