Farmers Alley Theatre’s “Little Shop of Horrors” 2015

Monday, September 21, 2015

WHO: Farmers Alley Theatre

WHAT: Little Shop of Horrors

WHEN: Sep 18 – Oct 11

WHERE: 221 Farmers Alley; Kalamazoo, MI 49007; 269-343-2727

WHY: Laughter! Romance! Terror! And a retro blast of fun and frenetic musical sci-fi adventure brought to life by Kalamazoo darling, the director Kathy Mulay, in Farmers Alley Theatre’s bid to kick off the Kalamazoo theatre season. (Not to mention, just in time for your Halloween haunts!)

My guest from 9/14, Brian Panse, from Farmer's Alley Theatre's
My radio guest on 9/14, Brian Panse, from Farmers Alley Theatre’s “Little Shop of Horrors”

FOR STARTERS:
It’s not easy being green. Not in the way Howard Ashman and Alan Menken envisioned, when they took a rough-around-the-edges, black & white, Roger Corman B-movie from 1960, which featured a very young Jack Nicholson in a tiny but hysterical part, and which almost immediately became a cult favorite despite its shortcomings (and even received better than lukewarm praise from a few critics), and then sought to create a musical from the premise of a mysterious new breed of Venus Flytrap plant who turns out to be a bit more ferocious (in their updated version), and ultimately seeks world domination. (The plant is shyly named Audrey II by Seymour as a token of love for his flower shop coworker crush.) This challenge was made all the more difficult with their collective desire to build a rich and multi-textured production sending up the 2-D, cut & dried, good vs. evil world of campy sci-fi B-movies while using several styles of mid-century American popular music to convey their message.

Of course, Farmers Alley Theatre always winds up making anything and everything look effortless, so in this case, it is indeed easy being green. And all of the other magnificent colors–both light and dark–that “Little Shop of Horrors” blossoms into…That is, from our perspective as an audience. What went on behind the scenes to bring this terrifying and twisted, yet romantic and hilarious musical is another story entirely, and therein lies the heart of the magic and mystery of musical theatre.

KEY CHARACTERS/PLAYERS:
Seymour – Harrison Bryan
Audrey – Melody Ricketts
Mushnik – Lou Price
Orrin [and quite possibly an extra surprise role or two] – Jeremy Koch
Crystal – Jasmine Franklin
Ronnette – Christie Lee Coleman
Chiffon – Tia Pinson
Voice of Audrey II – Stephen Anthony Grey
Audrey II Puppeteer – Brian Panse

HIGHLIGHTS:
~ The first girls to welcome us in–Crystal (Jasmine Franklin), Ronnette (Christie Lee Coleman), and Chiffon (Tia Pinson); our gray-clad Greek chorus, and a take on the 1960s Motown girl groups which are representative of a chunk of the musical’s roots of influence–bringing their infectious smiles and lovely voices into a very intimate introduction of face-to-face, story exposition with tight, three-part harmony, as they sing the opening song/title track, “Little Shop Of Horrors”…

~ Audrey’s comedic, but heartbreaking ballad “Somewhere That’s Green”, which is an unlikely showstopper… Laugh-out-loud lyrics do not detract from the underlying sentiment that end in Audrey’s eyes brimming with wistful tears, matching mine and those of several others in the audience as we tangibly sense the longing in her quest for a prettier, quieter, and happier place somewhere…One that glistens with the verdant color of flourishing growth and of life anew…

~ The unlikely alliance between put-upon Mushnik and put-down Seymour, in their attempt to turn around the downward direction of the flower shop’s fate, which leads the elder to invite his formerly despised employee to become an adopted son. This leads us to the next of the show’s highlights, the song “Mushnik & Son”: a klezmer-tango sung and danced by this man-child and his aging boss in very funny choreography so appropriately and adroitly created, as with the rest of the production’s dance numbers, by the multi-talented, founding FA member, Denene Mulay Koch…

~ “Now (It’s Just the Gas)”, a bizarre and comic journey to the other side as fueled by an overdose of nitrous oxide. This surreal scene is brought to us by the broadly versatile FA Artistic Director, Jeremy Koch–no stranger to this stage–portraying Orrin, the sadistic and domestically violent dentist, who also dates our Audrey. (Spoiler: Koch can be seen in many cartoonish and campy cameo roles throughout, from bit parts to this supporting character.) The laughs didn’t come so easily for all of Orrin’s jokes because we must also constantly witness his raging misogyny while he knocks around the cowering Audrey and calls her names. But here in this anesthetized little tune we get to laugh with abandon, as his humorous performance meshes with our anticipation about seeing him receive his well-deserved and long-awaited comeuppance…

~ Audrey II grows bigger and bigger with each person the persuasive plant preys upon. (He is voiced deeply but also with great dynamics and textural timbre by stage and voice actor, Stephen Anthony Grey, and manipulated in puppetry perfection by Brian Panse–my radio guest on 9/14.) Ultimately, it becomes clear the plant is out of control, and here we are treated to/menaced with the foreboding musical highlight, “Suppertime”, heralded by dreamlike, cascading piano arpeggios and buoyed by our girls’ insidious “Come on, come on…”…

TAKE NOTE:
This is Howard Ashman’s first and only credit for writing a book (the dialogue in a musical), although he also adapted the work into the Frank Oz 1986 film version’s screenplay. The principal run in its official Off-Broadway production lasted for five years, but never moved to Broadway, as Ashman felt its place was within the intimacy of a smaller Off-Broadway setting.

MORE THOUGHTS:
Luminary lighting designer, Lanny Potts, is always spot on, but this show finds him playing with a focus on fun. There exist Disney attractions with less adventure and atmosphere than the ride we are treated to here through his sometimes intense (but alternately and elsewhere understated) usage of illumination to transport us to the peculiar little shop. Soft green lights fade to a tightening spot during the last notes of Audrey’s, “Somewhere That’s Green”. We see flashes of melodrama when Seymour is beginning to be suspected by Mushnik as a possible culprit in the disappearance of those victims that became plant food, and he is consequently bathed in dramatic interrogation room-white for a flash, while the orchestra plays duh-duh-DUH notes. Later, Audrey II comes alive in a transformation that includes subtly morphing, mottled lighting which spreads across its huge, avocado-like Venus Flytrap head, lending a pernicious, pulsating quality to the potted plant.

You may notice the symbolic, monochromatic scheme of the first characters’ initial costumes and how they brighten and fill with color, as the shop and new attraction of a plant are filled with hope and signs of life. Even the portrait hung on the wall of their then-president, JFK, visually evolves with the vitality of the shop and of the dreams of its caretakers. Veteran costumer Kathryn Wagner follows along with the inspired vision of Mulay through her brilliant costuming which also slowly grows from washed out grays to a diverse and vibrant color palette; even Audrey’s dress is replicated, first with black and white, and then later in the story with a more colorful version of the same fabric. The entire collection of props created by CJ Drenth follow suit as well, all the way down to the broom handle.

I would be remiss if I discussed elements of this “Little Shop”, but neglected to mention the music director…Particularly in this case, as the trusty Marie McColley Kerstetter is in charge. Many are the musical show ‘ships’ that have been steered with exacting precision by this wunderkind of a musician/conductor. You can be sure that if Kerstetter is doing the music, the music is going to be done right. If you watched her rapid-fire arms and motioning head all through the show, I’m quite certain you would see only blurs of quick motion. And if you closed your eyes while imagining her working, you might be likely to visualize a human octopus, with far more arms than most earthbound humans.

~

This is a top-notch production telling a frolicking and freakish story that is under-girded by a zesty, bigger-than-life, but believable chemistry between the two terrifically talented leads, Melody Ricketts and Harrison Bryan’s Audrey and Seymour. Presented by the underlying morals play, we are prodded, sometimes gently/sometimes sharply, to look inside at our dreams and the cost associated with those pursuits. “Who knew success would come with messy, nasty strings?”, Seymour sings in “The Meek Shall Inherit”. In the end, this exponentially expanding monster may be something of a metaphor for the inner dreams/demons that we feed. Perhaps other audience members may extrapolate a very personal lesson, as did I, from this hysterical, touching, and melodramatic retro-styled/modern-day Greek comic tragedy. Albeit often unanswerable, we humans ask ourselves these existential questions, as does Seymour when he asks God what he is meant for, and even God replies that He’s “not sure”. Then, when we think we’ve found the right path, it is always wise to remember the reasons for planting our garden in the first place.

FOR PARENTS:
Toward the end, our monstrous plant grows quite large and–along with loud thunder claps and frenetic flashes of lightning–may be frightening to children of a certain age and/or temperament. Also, Orrin is incredibly angry and violent with Audrey, dragging her around, using coarse language in his name-calling, and even slapping her at one point. This may cause viewers of any age discomfort.

Some parents may wish to bring their tweens (& up), but also make time for a healthy discussion (before and/or after) about what does and does not constitute humane treatment of one another, along with other topics related to domestic violence.

TO LEARN MORE:
http://www.farmersalleytheatre.com/

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