Insatiable Appetite: Encore Theatre serves up a delicious “Little Shop of Horrors”
The Encore Musical Theatre Company is serving up a feast of fun, a musical time trip to 1960, and a charming story about an odd plant who develops a taste for human blood.
Little Shop of Horrors is not your typical musical, and it wasn’t your typical horror movie when B-movie master Roger Corman directed the screwball movie that inspired a hilarious and oddly lovable musical.
Little Shop of Horrors opened off-Broadway in 1982, with book and lyrics by Howard Ashman and music by Alan Menken while Ashman also directed. The team went on to help rescue Disney animation with hit songs for The Little Mermaid, Beauty and Beast, and Aladdin. Little Shop won raves off-Broadway and moved to Broadway for more acclaim. That led to another movie, the musical version.
The setting is 1960. A nebbish named Seymour Krelborn is laboring under slave conditions at Mushnick’s Florist at starvation wages and few prospects. He is hopelessly in love with Audrey, who also works at Mushnick’s, and is beginning to feel something for sweet, kind Seymour. But she’s currently going with a sadistic biker/dentist, a deadly combo.
Seymour discovers a cute, unusual plant that he hopes will bring customers to Mushnick’s dying business. He names the little plant Audrey 2, to shyly suggest his love for his co-worker. But babies sometimes grow into monsters when they’re hungry. And that’s what the play is all about.
The plant becomes a star. It grows to a gigantic size and draws the attention of national television and magazines. Little do they know that Audrey 2 has an insatiable taste for “fresh” human blood. Filling that taste can be a deadly proposition as we find out.
The time and place are set for the audience by a girl-group trio, each named for a late ’50s, early ’60s group: Crystal, Chiffon, and Ronnette. Sabrina Dahlgren, Leah Wilson, and Trinity Wolff are a sweet-singing Greek chorus laying out the situation in Skid Row and the temptations of downtown. They are always there to set the record straight, goad the good guys, warn about the bad guys, and keep the rhythm going.
Menken’s music is a tribute to a certain point in time for popular music. The chorus sets the beat, but the music moves in many directions while still staying true to that particular time. Ashman’s lyrics are hilarious, even the sentimental or aspirational songs are funny in their deep, down devotion.
Directors Dan Cooney and Anna Dreslinski have assembled an excellent cast that plays strong even while attention shifts to an ever-growing and never-satisfied green plant. The cast seems to be having as much fun as the audience, always a good sign.
Tyler J. Messinger plays Seymour. He’s quiet, bashful, and naive. Messinger gets that awkwardness but he also gets Seymour's strength and courage.
Ash Moran is a perfect Audrey and has the best New York accent. It is always reminding the audience that this show is set in a particular place at a particular time. Moran also has a fine, strong singing voice, especially on the heartfelt aspirational song, “Somewhere That’s Green,” and on a duet with Seymour, the most emotionally rousing song in the show, “Suddenly Seymour.”
The angry, contrary Mushnick is played by Keith Kalinowski, an Encore regular and a fine actor and singer. He is exactly what Mushnick should be, a frustrated mess. He has a great musical moment when he performs a cantor’s chant that is both funny and musically impressive.
Owen Squire Smith probably has the most fun of anyone in the cast. He’s a one-man riot (actually a multi-character riot). He first appears as a walking stiff who is attracted to the store by Audrey 2, a funny bit that seems to channel Dick Van Dyke. But his main character is Orin Scrivello, Audrey’s demented boyfriend and biker, and a maniacal, sadistic dentist. He struts, he poses, and he’s hilarious. He appears later as several characters trying to sign up Seymour and his plant for money-making schemes. But on the first night, Smith showed special aplomb as he handled a set problem with such ease and charm that he got big laughs and an ovation.
Hold on, wait, Audrey 2, we’re getting to you!
Two people were responsible for Audrey 2. William Scott Davison is the demanding voice booming, “Feed Me!” He growls, he tempts, he threatens, and he sings. Davison also gets to sing with the chorus as a man on the street. The ever-growing, ever-moving giant green plant is expertly brought to life by puppeteer Vaughn Louks. Every movement has a meaning under Louks' command.
The dance steps are choreographed by co-director Anna Dreslinski and capture the style of the period, a style that would be refined shortly by Motown.
Sarah Tanner’s set has a moody, wrong-side-of-town look that is different from other productions but seems right and in step with the opening laments of the chorus. It’s simple and effective. After all, it’s the plant that takes center stage.
R. Mackenzie Lewis and his tight orchestra provide their usual fine performance.
Finally, a special tip of the hat for good sportsmanship, good citizenship, and a great sense of humor goes out to Dexter Family Dentistry who sponsored a production that had an evil dentist as the villain. Their ad in the program makes it clear, “We have a talent for NOT causing you pain.”
Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently the managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit.
"Little Shop of Horrors" continues at The Encore Theatre Musical Theatre Company, 7714 Ann Arbor Road, Dexter, through September 24, including Thursdays to Saturdays at 7:30 pm and Saturdays and Sundays at 2 pm. For tickets, call 734-268-6200 or visit theencoretheatre.org.