The scene is set early for the Coeur d'Alene Summer Theater's production of Little Shop of Horrors. Even before the curtain opens, we see derelict storefronts on either side of the stage and a couple of dented trash cans - clearly the action doesn't happen in the posh part of town. And what's that lying at the edge of the stage? A pile of clothing? A mannequin? No, it's a drunk, sleeping off last night's binge until he awakens and stumbles into not the first but the second musical number of the show.
Welcome to the grimy underworld that's home to Mushnik's Skid Row Florists -- is that an oxymoron or what? -- and of the hapless Seymour Krelbourn, perennial loser and dabbler in exotic botanicals. Based on a 1960 B-movie by horrormeister Roger Corman, Little Shop is the definitive horror-musical-comedy - not a large genre, mind you, but still. Less gory than a horror movie and more upbeat than Sondheim's bleak horror-musical Sweeney Todd, the play takes camp as a given and makes the story fun. The original off-Broadway production played more than 2,000 performances in the '80s and then was made into a film starring Rick Moranis in 1986. Little Shop finally opened on Broadway with a revival in 2003 that's still playing.
Set in an undefined recent time that looks remarkably like the 1950s, Little Shop pays homage to two cultural institutions of that decade: doo-wop music and the sci-fi monster flick. Directed by Roger Welch, CST's production allows us to see some depth behind the camp while still delivering plenty of black humor. The music comes from Alan Menken, with book and lyrics by the late Howard Ashman - they're the team that later delivered the Disney hits The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin. Much of the show's humor is delivered in its lyrics, and the musical styles range from Broadway ballad to tongue-in-cheek rumba to low-down soul.
Klutzy Seymour is madly in love with his blonde co-worker, Audrey, but she's tied up - often literally - with her mad dentist boyfriend, Orin, who gets pleasure from causing pain. Always the schmuck, Seymour seems destined for a life of desperate anonymity until he acquires an odd little plant that appears out of nowhere during a total eclipse of the sun. Audrey Two - named by Seymour as a tribute to his crush - isn't just any plant, however, and it doesn't stay little for long. Audrey Two promises fame, wealth and romance in return for its favorite food, and suddenly Seymour has an ethical dilemma on his hands.
As Seymour, Frank Jewett captures the essence of the classic nerd right from the get-go with a face-plant on the floor marking his first entrance. He fiddles with his horn-rimmed glasses and meekly accepts the outburst of criticism from his boss, Mr. Mushnik, played by Jack Bannon. During Seymour's duet with the lovely long-limbed Audrey, Jewett looks like a Woody Allen-style nebbish as he croons his affection for his taller co-worker with just the right combination of awkwardness and sincerity.
As Audrey, Meghan Maddox plays the slightly ditzy love interest who's saddled with low self-esteem and a "semi-sadist" boyfriend. Her working-class New York accent is subtle but consistent throughout. When the sparks finally ignite between Audrey and Seymour, their attraction is believable and the audience pulls for them, even though the plant has other ideas.
As Mushnik, the flower shop owner, Jack Bannon brings some soul to a supporting role that could be easily two-dimensional. He's gruff and he's mercenary, but he has enough humanity to worry about Audrey and her constant bruises and blackened eyes. When he thinks the newly famous Seymour might be ready to vamoose with his equally famous plant, Bannon negotiates an agreement with his employee via a hilarious rumba.
Malevolent dentist Orin Scrivello is just one of the characters played ably by the engaging Christopher Moll. Orin has no depth; he's a textbook villain, and that's just the way we like him. His musical tale of finding his life's vocation, "Dentist," is deliciously evil and over-the-top. (Incidentally, if you have a dental appointment planned soon after seeing the play, you may want to consider rescheduling.) After taking Orin to his unsavory conclusion, Moll goes on to play a series of media types, all seeking to exploit Seymour, and each one unique.
The liveliest musical moments in the show are the ensemble pieces featuring some doo wop girls, a trio of backup singers who take the role of Greek chorus, appearing throughout the show to comment on the action and sometimes to take part. Their names - Ronette, Chiffon and Crystal - call to mind the girl-groups of the '50s and '60s, with their tight harmonies and coordinated choreography. Played by Melissa Fleck, Krista Kubicek and the pinch-hitting Kelly Kunkel, the trio provided continuity and anchored the ensemble. In particular, the opener, "Skid Row (Downtown)," says more about the characters' situations and their longings than pages of dialogue could accomplish.
And then, of course, there's the plant. Audrey Two grows increasingly menacing as the show goes on, thanks to the puppetry of Josh Heinig and the soulful baritone of Steve Booth. Yes, little lady (and man), this plant is talking to you, and it gets more strident and confident with every scene, until - well, you'll have to see for yourself what happens. But if you've seen only the 1986 film and you think you know the ending, think again.
Overall, this production is a good one. The small cast is strong and works well together, although they sometimes threaten to get lost on the big stage. One minor annoyance came from the sound; the mix and quality got muddy when the volume went up, making it difficult to pick out some of the witty lyrics that make the show so much fun. The women in particular seemed to be miked too high, so their voices sounded piercing rather than rich as the singers reached a crescendo. Fortunately, this is a minor glitch in an otherwise fun experience.
Despite the play's B-movie origins, the main characters are more than just cartoon images. Seymour struggles to overcome his orphan childhood and break free of his nerdish persona without losing himself. Through his own passivity, he backs into a Faustian bargain with the plant and then must decide whether to continue paying the price for the plant's continued favors. Audrey (the girl, not the plant) is the typical abused woman, certain that she deserves the rough treatment she gets from Orin. Her dreams of "somewhere that's green" are ridiculously small, so small that we don't mind laughing at them, but her yearning to break out of the daily grind of urban poverty rings true.
The show pokes fun at campy stories while reveling in one. Some serious themes get addressed as well, like the daily indignities of being poor, the common fantasies of escape and the moral compromises people will choose when tempted by fame and fortune. But don't worry; Little Shop is a mainly light-hearted romp through murder, mayhem and world domination. Whatever you do, don't feed the plants.