It should come as no surprise that a musical about a bloodthirsty singing plant set with a backdrop of 1960s doo-wop revels in its campiness. Little Shop of Horrors at ACT Theatre burst with upbeat, silly cheer even when the actions on stage take a turn for the morose. But for all its exuberance, its hard to not feel like the whole thing feels… dated. While the story was an original innovator in mixing horror and comedy elements, as genre blurring has become more common place, Little Shop’s paper thin characters don’t stand the test of time.
Little Shop of Horrors follows Seymour (Joshua Carter), a nerdy botanist who toils away at the failing Mushnik's Skid Row Florists under the supervision of the cranky Mr. Mushnik (Jeff Steitzer). Seymour longs for the love of his co-worker, the sweet, but slightly airheaded Aurdrey (Jessica Skerritt). Seymour finds a way up in the world when he cultivates a previously unknown fly trapper-type plant he names Audrey II. The plant revitalizes the shop and brings Seymour major attention, but unfortunately Audrey II (voiced Ekello J. Harrid, Jr. with puppeteering by Eric Esteb) requires human blood to grow and begins talking (and singing) to Seymour demanding more fleshy food.
The main problem Little Shop struggles to overcome is how its two lead characters are achingly archetypal. Seymour’s underdog nerd and Audrey’s attractive, ditz blonde never become more than their two-dimensional stereotypes. While it’s clear they’re fond of each other, the chemistry never develops past the point of Seymour seeming to like Audrey as little more than an unattainable beauty who treats him nice. Little Shop’s other issue is its horror-comedy premise. When it the story was first told on screen in 1960 (and even when it first appeared as a musical Off-Broadway in 1982) the concept of mixing comedy and horror elements was a relatively novel (if not revolutionary) concept. Since then the idea has been worked over time and time again, mostly cinematically in films like Evil Dead II and Tucker and Dale vs. Evil. But comparatively, both the comedy and horror of the new breed of genre blenders is at an entirely different level than Little Shop. They attack and mock archetypes like Seymour and Audrey instead of plugging them in as the leads.
Little Shops music derives heavily on the doo-wop and rock sounds from the 1960s. A chorus of three female street urchins carries the sound, both leading numbers and providing backing vocals for the main characters’ songs. The musical vibe is strong, but show has some serious sound mixing issues. Lyrics would get lost often during the upbeat, more rocking tunes because the house musicians were simply too loud. In a show like Little Shop, where much of the comedy is lyric-based, that’s simply unacceptable.
The show’s comedy vacillates constantly between being sharp and schlocky. It shines with lines like when Audrey, comparing the men in her life, sings “I know Seymour’s the greatest, but I’m dating a semi-sadist.” There’s also some great physical comedy early, when Seymour must fight against the tiny potted puppet Audrey II’s desire to eat up the chorus singers mid-song. But it can also seem a tad cheesy, like most of the Elvis-like Greaser shtick of Audrey’s abusive boyfriend Orin (David Anthony Lewis). (Though, in fairness to Lewis, he really gives his all and commits selling each bit).
Those not familiar with modern takes on horror-comedy can probably fully buy into Little Shop of Horrors freaky little world. But those seeking character depth or with a low-camp tolerance will probably leave without their theatrical hunger being satiated.
Little Shop of Horrors
Thru June 15, ACT Theatre, $49–$79