Little Shop of Horrors

by Robert Nesti

EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor

Tuesday September 3, 2019

Katrina Z. Pavao and Dan Prior (along with Audrey 2) in "Little Shop of Horrors" at the Lyric Stage Company through October 4.
Katrina Z. Pavao and Dan Prior (along with Audrey 2) in "Little Shop of Horrors" at the Lyric Stage Company through October 4.  

Forget about the Downton Abbey exhibit, a new pop-up with a superstar attraction is currently demanding your attention in Boston's Back Bay, but it won't be there for long. If you want to see it, head to Mushnik's Florists, a skid row storefront that has taken up residence at the Lyric Stage where the horticultural wonder known as Audrey 2 is on view until October 6.

Audrey 2, whom you will likely remember from stage productions of "Little Shop of Horrors" or its popular film adaptation, is a plant that has dropped in from another planet and subsists on human blood. She never looked more playfully menacing as she does here — a large, green succulent that looks like a mix between a Venus Fly Trap and some rapacious alligator with a very crimson and very gaping mouth. If the producers were smart, they would have Audrey pose for selfies with audience members at the end of the show, just hope she's not looking for a snack.

Thankfully, there are plenty of other reasons to head to the Lyric Stage where this Howard Ashman-Alan Menken musical is getting a letter-perfect production under the sure hand of Rachel Bertone. For starters, she gets the show's odd, B-movie dark tone just right that was derived, then sweetened when Ashman and Menken adapted the Roger Corman horror quickie made in 1960 in a few days time for $28,000 that (rightly so) became a cult classic. Part of the reason the film became so popular was due to the film being in the public domain (Corman did not copyright it), which led it to become a staple on late-night television throughout the 1960s and 1970s. (Ashman remembers seeing it late night as a teenager, as many of us did.)

The musical was an enormous off-Broadway hit in 1982, which turned into the team's first big hit. They went on to write scores for a trio of memorable Disney animated musicals — "The Little Mermaid," "Beauty and the Beast" and "Aladdin," prior to Mr. Ashman's untimely death from AIDS at the age of 40. Menken has gone to a prolific career in musical theater and Ashman's work lives on in his lyrics for stage adaptations of those Disney films (augmented with work by additional lyricists); but here they show a collaborative synergy that ended far too soon. "Little Shop of Horrors" is a pretty near-perfect mix of period musical pastiche and dark comedy. Most of Menken's music slyly parodies 1960s girl group-styled pop, underscored with the appearance of three cast members — neighborhood kids who turn up in Supremes-styled gowns to sing back-up.

Ashman's libretto doesn't shirk from the grim underpinnings, which has a body count that rivals "Sweeney Todd," but the show remains charming, largely because how Ashman and Menken extend the sketchy characters from Corman's film into sweetly realized characters: Seymour, the nerdy wannabee horticulturalist who discovers the plant that becomes Audrey 2; Audrey, his Judy Holliday-like co-worker at the store whom he secretly crushes; and Mr. Mushnik, the store's anxious store owner who capitalizes on Audrey 2's celebrity. There is also Audrey's abusive boyfriend: an Alpha-male jerk who rides a motorcycle and works in a profession that is sung about in one of the show's cleverest reveals. And that trio of neighborhood kids who can morph into Motown superstars in a flash.

And then there's Audrey 2, here the inspired collaboration of designer Cameron McEachern, puppeteer Tim Hoover, and actress Yewande Odetoyinbo. It's fun to watch her morph from a sickly sprout (and hand puppet) to a healthy Venus Fly Trap hybrid and, lastly, something resembling an alligator out of a Grade B horror film. And to marvel at the artistry of McEachern's work, which is witty and perfectly in pitch with the show's zany premise. His work is complemented by Hoover's hilarious manipulations and the big-voice of Odetoyinbo, who brings an Aretha-sized sass to a role usually played by a male soul singer in the manner of Isaac Hayes.

The gender reassignment here is only one of the smart ideas in Bertone's production. She integrates 1960s-styled choreography throughout and uses the upstairs/downstairs stage to great effect at some climactic moments. It really take some time for Audrey to rear her hungry head, up to that point the story centers on the flagging fortunes of the shop, as well as Seymour's crush on Audrey, who is involved in an abusive relationship, which, by the way, isn't sugar-coated, but presented as a real dilemma that requires Seymour to take action. But even as the body count rises, the tone remains darkly comic; and Ashman and Menken cleverly evoke the film's ending, here expressed in an upbeat finale that celebrates the success of its leading lady.

And why not? This Audrey 2 is something; but so is this ensemble, who bring this comic book tale its heart and quite a bit of soul. Dan Prior is well-cast as the conflicted Seymour, the nerd who finds his way to romance and fame but at a high cost. He has great chemistry with the wonderful Katrina Z. Pavao who, as Audrey, brings touching authenticity to what is a musical archetype — the ditzy, romantic blonde (think Adelaide from "Guys and Dolls"). It helps that she gets two of the show's best songs — "Suddenly, Seymour," which she shares with Prior; and her yearning "Somewhere That's Green," a plaintiff ode to the suburban life she yearns for.

Remo Airaldi makes a solid Mr. Mushnik and shines in the Klezmer-styled "Mushnik and Son," his duet with Seymour that is one of the enjoyable numbers jettisoned for the film version. Jeff Marcus shines in a variety of roles, most notably as Orin, Audrey's abusive boyfriend with a thing for mind-altering substances. Last but certainly not least is that trio of Motown-styled singers, each named in homage to 1960s girl groups: Crystal (Lovely Hoffman), Chiffon (Pier Lamia Porter) and Ronette (Carla Martinez). They bring the right level of street-smarts to the show, which is a delight from beginning to end.

"Little Shop of Horrors" continues through October 6 at the Lyric Stage Company, 140 Clarendon Street, Boston, MA. For more information, visit the Lyric Stage Company website.

Robert Nesti can be reached at [email protected].