Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Theater Review: Little Shop of Horrors -- Ivoryton

Laura Woyasz and Audrey. Photo: Roger U. Williams.
Seems We Never Get Tired of Hearing Audrey II Say, “Feed Me!”
By Lauren Yarger
Yes, there’s another production of Little Shop of Horrors you can enjoy, this one at Ivoryton Playhouse. I say “another” because it seems that there’s always a production of this Alan Menken/Howard Ashman musical playing somewhere every season.

The rock musical, based on the 1960 dark comedy film of the same name directed by Roger Corman and written by Charles Griffith, has been the darling of regional, community and student theaters since it premiered Off-Broadway in 1982.

It features, Audrey II, a human-flesh-eating, venus-fly-trap sort of plant puppet (designed by Martin P. Robinson), manipulated at Ivoryton by Austin Costello, a recent graduate of UConn’s recent UConn puppetry program, and a crowd-pleasing score from Menken (The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin) that includes “Suddenly Seymour,” “Somewhere That’s Green” and “Skid Row.”

The book (also written by lyricist Ashman) tells the odd story of nerdy Seymour (Nicholas Park), who creates a hybrid plant that starts bringing attention to the Skid Row flower shop owned by Mr. Mushnik (David Conaway). He names the plant Audrey II, after shop co-worker Audrey (Laura Woyasz), who doesn’t realize at first that Seymour’s in love with her. She’s lived a hard life and doesn’t think she deserves a nice, sweet guy like Seymour. Instead, she continues in an abusive relationship with a sadistic dentist, Orin Srivello (Carson Higgins).

While Seymour’s fame -- and Audrey II’s size -- grow enormously, Seymour tries to hide  the secret to Audrey II’s success: the plant lives on human blood. “Feed Me!” the plant demands as it grows and sings (voiced here by Steve Sabol) while Seymour sacrifices first his own blood, then others’ to satiate Audrey II’s hunger.

You can try to read all kinds of philosophical themes into the plot about greed, the drive for fame and success or even concern for the environment, but take my advice and just sit back and enjoy that fabulous score (with orchestrations by Robert Merkin) featuring a really great trio of neighborhood girls (played by La’Nette Wallace, a vocal power house, Azarria White  and Denielle Marie Gray) who hang out by the shop and sing some terrific harmonies while wearing nifty costumes and excellent wigs (designed by Vickie Blake and Elizabeth Cipollina, respectively).

When they aren’t sitting on the steps or dancing out Apollo Smile’s campy choreography in front of the shop, the trio can be seen upstairs, next door to the shop through windows incorporated in Martin Scott Marchitto’s impressive, quick-changing set. Artistic Director Jacqueline Hubbard referred to some technical glitches with the set during previews, but everything seemed in perfect working order when I saw the show opening night. The sound mix (designed by Tate R. Burmeister) needs adjustment, however, as some of the vocals in group numbers are overwhelmed by the chorus. Vocals are arranged by Robert Billing.

Laughter proved that the audience members seemed to be taking my advice and were enjoying the show – many probably for the first time based on gasps heard when the larger Audrey II made its appearance or in response to other plot points that wouldn’t surprise a veteran like me who has seen the show numerous times. One woman near me chortled every time the dentist was on the stage. I was enjoying her as much as the show.

A disappointment from the veteran perspective, however: Director Larry Thelen, who helmed the recent La Cage Aux Folles and the really terrific production of Dreamgirls at Ivoryton, allows Woyasz and Higgins to take their characters too far. They go over the top when it’s unnecessary. We’re going to laugh when Audrey alludes to the classiness of her gaudy outfit (designed by Vickie Blake) and we’re going to cringe when Orin gets pleasure out of using a power drill on his own teeth. It doesn’t require extra effort by the actors to try to be funny. In addition, Thelen fails to coax dialogue from Conaway at anything but a constant yell. I’d say, relax everybody. You don’t have to work so hard.

Park, who starred last year in Ivoryton’s All Shook Up, turns in another engaging performance, this time nailing the nerdy Seymour. He seems to be enjoying himself, and we enjoy watching him.

Robert James Tomasulo directs the terrific-sounding, six-man band housed off-stage.

Little Shop of Horrors runs through Oct. 11 at Ivoryton Playhouse, 103 Main St., Ivoryton, CT. Performnces are Wednesday and Sunday matinees at 2 pm. Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 pm; Friday and Saturday at 8 pm.  Tickets are $42 for adults, $37 for seniors, $20 for students and $15 for children. (860) 767-7318; www.ivorytonplayhouse.org.

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Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)
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