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Little Shop of Horrors: what went wrong (according to me)

by | Sep 16, 2023 | Review | 1 comment

publicity photo for Little Shop of Horrors

The plant, Audrey II, with Seymour (the charming Tenaj Williams)
(Photo by Moonrider Productions)

This is my fifth draft of this review.

Previous drafts have started with “Free the bimbo!” and “This production could accurately be renamed Little Shop of Crippling Good Intentions.”

Overall, I don’t think the production succeeds.

But I’m out of snappy ledes, so let’s get right to the analysis — as soon as we’ve covered the synopsis.

In Howard Ashman’s book for Little Shop of Horrors, Seymour Krelborn, a timid assistant in Mr. Mushnik’s flower shop on Skid Row, discovers an weird little plant during a solar eclipse. Seymour is smitten with Audrey, Mr. Mushnik’s other employee, but she is in the sway of Orin Scrivello, her emotionally and physically abusive boyfriend.

Yes, this is a musical in which domestic violence is a major dynamic — and sometimes it’s played for laughs.

How could domestic violence be funny?

Well, Little Shop of Horrors is camp, so its style is both real and not real: it’s based in emotional truth, but that truth is selectively exaggerated, abstracted, and turned into humour, often the transgressive kind.

Mostly the world of the show is not real. Seymour’s plant, which he names Audrey II in a tribute to his crush, is carnivorous. At first, Audrey II demands fresh human blood. Then, as she grows to gargantuan proportions, she demands human flesh. “Feed me, Seymour!” she sings in her heavy-metal voice, and, in a Faustian bargain, promises Seymour the world in return.

Orin, the boyfriend, is a cartoon villain, a dentist who doesn’t give his patients anaesthetic; he prefers to huff the laughing gas himself.

This dark playfulness allows jokes about Orin and Audrey to land without offence — for me at least — when Audrey sings, for instance, “I think Seymour’s the greatest/ But I’m dating a semi-sadist.”

Still, Orin’s abuse of Audrey also needs to be real. He calls her a slut and, at one point, he slaps her. These bursts of reality are essential: emotionally, Little Shop of Horrors is fueled largely by our affection for Audrey and fury with Orin.

There’s an argument to be made that Little Shop of Horrors shouldn’t be performed anymore because it doesn’t treat domestic violence with sufficient gravity. Fair enough.

But my take is that, if you are going to mount it, you need to embrace both sides of the camp equation as it applies to Orin’s cruelties: funny and not funny, unreal and real — because that’s the balance that makes this material work.

Unfortunately, in directing Synthia Yusuf as Audrey in this production, Ashleigh Corcoran has pretty much eliminated the funny/unreal. As directed by Corcoran, Yusuf’s Audrey is a flat-out victim. It’s as if she’s living in the real world and the world has defeated her.

Theatrically, this reduction of the character is boring. And, instead of making the presentation of the abuse more respectful and palatable, it makes it more prominent and creepy.

Structurally, Corcoran’s mistake throws Little Shop’s gears out of whack. Audrey is a kind of clown — and I say that with great appreciation for the wisdom of clownish innocence and the buoyancy of clownish resilience.

Audrey’s innocence is — or should be — the light that lifts this musical. In her Act 1 anthem, “Somewhere That’s Green”, Audrey dreams of an ecstatic suburban future with Seymour:A matchbox of our own/ A fence of real chain link,/ A grill out on the patio/ Disposal in the sink.” This is parody, of course but, in the magic that is camp, it’s also so heartfelt that it’s moving. I cannot listen to this song without choking up.

The Act 2 barnburner, “Suddenly Seymour”, in which Audrey and Seymour declare their love for each other, is the apex of the show’s optimism.

But Corcoran’s framing of Audrey undermines all of this. It feels like Audrey never truly celebrates, never truly believes there’s a way out for her.

You can even see Corcoran’s mistake in the way costumer Carmen Alatorre clothes Audrey. The script clearly calls for her to be outrageously dressed — maybe in head-to-toe animal prints — but in this production she’s so conservatively attired that, when Seymour tells Audrey his clothes aren’t tasteful like hers, the joke has nowhere to land.

And, without a buoyant, energized Audrey, the narrative of Little Shop of Horrors becomes a repetitive slog of gruesome downward steps.

Openhearted and understated, Tenaj Williams’s characterization of Seymour is vastly more successful. And his voice is a caress.

Playing a number of characters, including Orin, John Ullyatt is miscast: it’s impossible to buy him as a bad-boy motorcycling dentist.

The teetering angles and multiple windows of Beyata Hackborn’s Skid Row set are fun and they’re dynamically lit by Rebecca Picherak.

But Corcoran’s production becomes annoyingly hyperkinetic. She uses the revolve too much. Gianna Vicirca’s choreography contains a bunch of cool moves but it’s too busy.

And, as often happens in the Stanley, the sound is muddy, so we lose too many of Howard Ashman’s witty lyrics.

I would have been much happier with a simpler production that made better use of Audrey, who is, after all, the show’s heart.

LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS Book and lyrics by Howard Ashman. Music by Alan Menken.  Directed by Ashleigh Corcoran. On Thursday, September 14. A co-production between the Arts Club Theatre and Calgary’s Citadel Theatre. At the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage until October 8. Tickets and info

For the blind and those with limited vision, Vocal Eye will describe the performances on Sunday, October 1 (2:00 pm) and Friday, October 6 (8:00 pm).

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1 Comment

  1. Kj Monroe

    This is an accurate review. Audrey is miscast or misdirected. Maybe both? Audrey (the plant voice) was also loud and shrieky. Needed earplugs.


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