Has Little Shop of Horrors, a 1982 musical featuring bloody murder, brutal dismemberment, a shit-talking plant, a kinky, leather-clad dentist, and a host of adult themes, overcome its laundry list of perversities to become an unlikely family classic? Based on the vast number of children in Theatre Memphis' audience last Sunday, that would appear to be the case. And why not? Even with its naughty parts Little Shop is no more unsettling than most fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm, and its moral is more clearly defined. With an exciting set by Pam Hurley and vibrant staging by director Cecilia Wingate, Little Shop plays out like an animated feature by Tim Burton but with attitude.
Set in a hopeless and broken urban landscape where kids split school in the fifth grade, winos roam free, and "hopheads flop in the snow," Little Shop touches on addiction, sadistic relationships, greed, and mankind's infinite corruptibility. Borrowing a principle from the biblical beatitudes, the little musical full of big ideas teaches first and foremost that the meek are "gonna get what's coming to them." They're gonna be eaten by all manner of predators: businessmen, the media, the status quo, and eventually Audrey II, a blood-sucking, limb-chomping plant discovered by supergeek Seymour Krelborn, the play's mild-mannered florist/hero with no hope of ever leaving skid row.
Of the many Seymours to have played Memphis over the years, Marques Brown may very well be the best. We never see Brown the actor winking at his klutzy character, only an aching soul looking for a ray of hope and possibly the love of a good woman -- or at least Audrey, skid row's B-girl with a heart of gold.
In the '80s, America was caught up in retromania and enamored of all things '50s. Sadly, that love affair included Ayn Rand, whose 1957 book Atlas Shrugged turned greed into a virtue and posited that the "good" who offer themselves as sacrifices to "evil" get what's coming to them. This was the era of trickle-down economics, which is nothing more than a fancy way of saying "let them eat cake." With a feather-light touch, Little Shop turned these Randian values upside down, quickly becoming a cult favorite.
In "Somewhere That's Green," Audrey sings of a beautiful 1950s tract house and her desire to live a more natural life with the aid of plastic furniture covers, TV, and Pine Sol. Miriam Rodriguez, who is 16-years old, pines for this manufactured Utopia like a December bride who wasted her youth going round and round the same rotten block. Her violent dentist/boyfriend Orin is given equally fine treatment by Kent Fleshman, a veteran of productions such as Zombie Prom and Assassins.
Character actor Greg Krosnes puts his exceptional skills as a physical comedian on display as old man Mushnik, the cranky flower-shop proprietor. At times his character -- all frustrated arms and supressed anger -- seems to dwarf the stage. The 39-year-old actor is thoroughly convincing as a toupee-wearing grump of 60.
Little Shop in narrated by a chorus of three tough chicks whose names -- Ronette, Chiffon, and Crystal -- are inspired by girl groups of the Motown era. As is the case with any grand tragedy, they are the heart of the production, and Thymia Rogers, Mandy Lane, and Ashley Wieronski throw down enough vocal pyrotechnics to set the house on fire. As the voice of the plant, Steven Tate is equally soulful even if he does seem to be imitating syllable for syllable Levi Stubbs' definitive performance from the 1986 film.
Theatre Memphis first staged Little Shop of Horrors 20 years ago on The Next Stage, a small black-box theater that's perfect for intimate performances. Although this Main Stage revival is bigger, brighter, and better in most every way, this is still a character-driven story, and, through no fault of the superb cast or crew, it loses a little something in the much bigger space. Given the near sellout Sunday crowd, that would appear to be the price of popularity and a small price to pay.
As we quickly move into the holiday season -- a miserable time for theater critics who are faced with the prospect of watching and writing about stale children's shows, family affairs, and endless variations on Dickens' fine but threadbare A Christmas Carol -- it's interesting to consider Little Shop of Horrors as a new kind of holiday classic. Any play this fun and able to say so much without sermonizing deserves to be brought back again and again. So what if the plant says some dirty words? He is the bad guy, after all.
Little Shop of Horrors
Through October 31st