Little Shop of Horrors dwells on a short list of musicals that I really love and the Stray Dog production, which opened at Tower Grove Abbey last weekend, is a great example of why. If done well, Little Shop… cannot fail to please. This particular production, under keen and polished direction by Justin Been, succeeds gloriously. It is given a Stray Dog twist, in the guise of some alternative casting, which serves to enhance the tawdry setting of Skid Row.
I especially enjoyed the casting of Mark Saunders as Ronnette. The three ladies, Crystal (Maria Bartolotta,) Chiffon (Jamie Lynn Marble) and Saunder’s Ronnette act as a pseudo-Greek Chorus, narrating at times, taking roles as neighborhood urchins, and always providing a do-wop background for many of the songs. Saunders was wonderful, his baritone anchored the trio and he never missed a step, despite the high heels; but all three of the ladies were strong and polished which starts the play off on exactly the right foot.
The stage play is based on Roger Corman’s 1960 cult horror/sci-fi film. It involves man-eating plants from outer space, the out and downers of Skid Row, sweetness of character besting brutality, and a romance dreamed with small dreams. Making the plant come to life is one of the challenges of the script and here it is done beautifully, part puppet, part electronics and given strong voice by Jeremy Sims.
Lindsey Jones has a lovely voice and uses it strikingly in Audrey’s two ballads, “Somewhere That’s Green” and “Suddenly Seymour.” Ben Watts, as Seymour Krelborn, has an irritating, nasal tone to Seymour’s speaking voice that grates after a while, but his singing voice is sweeter and blends well with Jones. Finally, Keith Thompson does mad dashing between four roles, including that of Audrey’s battering boyfriend, Orin Scrivello, DDS. His dentist even channels a little Steve Martin, as he huffs his nitrous. (Martin played the role in the 1986 film version with Ellen Greene.)
Another joy was the use of a live band led by Chris Petersen. In a time when larger companies are choosing canned music, it is wonderful to see a live band in a smaller venue. I believe live music makes the show and that belief is proved here. Bravo.
There was only one thing that spoiled my pleasure in the evening and that was the sound system. It is a difficult space for sound, and putting mics on the actors helps to hear them over the air conditioning and controls the difference in vocal power where necessary, but many of the actors were belting at full volume, with mics, in that tiny, echoing space and the result was often too loud and sometimes painful. I hope they will continue to adjust the levels as the show progresses. All in all an evening of fun and camp, villains and heroes, fine acting and great singing. Little Shop of Horrors continues at Tower Grove Abbey through August 3rd. Don’t miss it.