Hey, Stop Cloning Around!
What does it take to succeed on Broadway these days? Nobody has the exact answer to that question, but many think they do. One long-standing strategy is to import London hits. Another is to stuff the show with movie stars. A third, and perhaps the most widely used ploy, is to recycle a past hit. If it ain't broke, so goes this logic, revive it. That last idea is clearly the plan behind Little Shop of Horrors, the perky musical currently in pre-Broadway residence at the Actors' Playhouse in Coral Gables. This well-produced, well-performed show not only takes its cue from the original, 1982 off-Broadway production, it's doing its darnedest to replicate that long-running phenomenon. Headed for Broadway? Send in the clones.
Little Shop has to do with Seymour, a put-upon nebbish who works as a clerk at a failing flower shop on a nameless skid row. He's hopelessly in love with his coworker, Audrey, a blond bimbo with a troubled past and a penchant for abusive boyfriends, especially one Orin Scrivello, a laughing, gas-snorting, motorcycle-riding dentist with decidedly sadistic work habits. But Seymour's luck turns when he happens upon a strange little plant, which he names Audrey II, in honor of the secret object of his devotion. Seymour brings Audrey II to the shop to care for it, unaware that the little sprout is really an alien life form intent on taking over the world. Audrey II draws curious visitors but begins to wilt. Seymour tries everything he can think of to revive it, but only one thing works: human blood. Seymour draws so much of his own blood to feed the now-growing plant, he's getting lightheaded. But the payoffs -- money, fame, and the love of Audrey I -- make it seem worth it. Problem is, Audrey II starts making demands for more and more "food."
This dark, bitterly funny plotline has all sorts of political and moral implications, chiefly the conflict between true love and the relentless quest for money and fame. But to this brooding story is added Alan Menken's bouncy Sixties-style pop tunes and the late Howard Ashman's clever lyrics. Ashman also created the original staging, adding a harmonizing trio of black women who serve as chorus commentators. The result is a stylish, sweet, and sour blend of humor, charm, and horror. Menken and Ashman's songs aren't gorgeous or particularly memorable, in the manner of Rodgers and Hammerstein, but they are certainly infectious and well crafted. It's clear why the Walt Disney organization snapped them up to pen tunes for such movie musicals as The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and Beauty and the Beast. And unlike many contemporary songsmiths, Menken and Ashman wrote songs that helped drive the narrative, which is happily packed with an array of wacky characters from start to finish.
Little Shop of Horrors began life as a 1960 feature made by (or, perhaps more accurately, slapped together by) the then-king of cheapie movies, Roger Corman. Coming off of a horror hit, Bucket of Blood, Corman wanted another go at the horror genre, this time with a dark comedic twist. He set Bucket's screenwriter Chuck Griffith to the task, and Griffith came up with the bitter, hilarious Little Shop, which Corman allegedly shot in two days after a three-day rehearsal. The film quickly became a cult classic (check out the very young, then-unknown Jack Nicholson as a masochistic dental patient) but drifted into obscurity by the 1970s. Flash-forward to the Reagan era of the 1980s when Little Shop the musical debuted at New York's low-rent WPA theatre, featuring Lee Wilkof as Seymour and Ellen Greene as Audrey. Ashman and Menken's musical version became an enduring hit, moving to the larger Orpheum Theatre on Second Avenue and carrying on for more than 2000 performances. Frank Oz, the Muppeteer who created Miss Piggy, directed the film version, which featured Rick Moranis as Seymour, backed by such comedians as Bill Murray, John Candy, and Steve Martin.
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Now Little Shop is gearing up for a Broadway run, with an August opening. The revival is directed by Connie Grappo, who carefully re-creates the look of the original production. Scott Pask's set, a nightmarish cartoon cityscape à la Edward Gorey, directly echoes the original design concept. Same with the complex puppet design of Audrey II, courtesy of the Jim Henson organization. Ditto for the use of a black male performer (Billy Porter) as the voice of Audrey II. So are the characterizations -- Hunter Foster's Seymour closely tracks Wilkof and Moranis's work, while Alice Ripley's Audrey does the same with Ellen Greene's. The chorus -- Dioni Michelle Collins, Moeisha McGill, and Haneefah Wood -- also mirrors the original production concept. Since the work of all is so well executed, what's not to like?
But likability isn't the same thing as success, and while this Little Shop is thoroughly professional, it is lacking some fundamental spark. Not only is there little evidence of new ideas in this show, but even the old ones aren't given much attention. The underlying ethos of this project seems to be: Never mind why the show worked in the past, it just did, so clone it and it'll work again. But while a production can be cloned, you can't clone its context. The original Little Shop hit New York City just as the harsh realities of the Reagan era began to sink in. Little Shop, with its class conflicts, arguments against selfishness and greed, and bold use of black performers, gave it a subversive (if ideologically vague) feel. It had appeal on a number of levels -- as tongue-in-cheek parody, as a moral parable, and as a political tract.
But this revival skips over some of the punchier aspects. The social and class conflicts are clearly set up in the show's first big number, "Downtown (Skid Row)," and Grappo works with these issues early on. When Audrey sings "Somewhere That's Green," a plaintive, woe-is-me tune about wishing to live in suburbia, she's surrounded by the members of the chorus, who look on with hard-eyed clarity. The blond white chick can dream about upscale suburban dreams, but the three poor black women know they're not going anywhere. Grappo's staging shows a nice understated irony here, but that's soon lost. More troubling is the fact that the corrosive power of Audrey II is decidedly misinterpreted. As this production now plays, Little Shop is merely a story about ordinary people who happen to meet a sad end because of an evil external force. But earlier incarnations of this story suggest a more troubling tale: that this external force unleashes inherent destructive forces within these ordinary characters. One example is the florist Mushnik, played by Lee Wilkof (the original Seymour). Mushnik starts off a likable schlemiel but turns into a greedy predator as his acquisition of wealth warps him. He has to be so money-hungry that he can be lured even into the jaws of death, if the trap is baited with cash. Grappo and Wilkof don't take Mushnik far enough; his hunger should be more consuming. Same with Seymour's desire for Audrey. In both, Grappo pulls back from such strong passions. Of the principal roles, only Ripley clicks as the tormented Audrey, precisely because she's allowing for her character's darker, self-inflicted impulses. Same goes for Reg Rogers's multicharacter work as the drugged-out Orin and a swarm of cameos.
But while this production's oversimplification tends to undercut its potency, this strategy may well be by design. This is, after all, the Bush era, not the Reagan one, and while the politics of both may be similar, the national tone seems quite different. In an era such as ours, when reward-the-rich tax cuts pass Congress without so much as a public whimper, it may make sense for Little Shop's producers to stifle any social sensitivity in the plot. Who knows? In this day and age, they may well find audiences rooting wholeheartedly for the ravenous, blood-sucking plant.
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