Sunday, September 18, 2016

"Little Shop of Horrors"

Little Shop of Horrors
Howard Ashman (Book & Lyrics); Alan Menkin (Music)
Ray of Light Theatre

Mary Kalita & Sam Faustine
How do you take everyone’s favorite horror, fully-tongue-in-cheek, rock musical about a human-eating plant and ensure that your production will be noticed when this musical has already been produced in the past thirty years on almost every community’s stage in the country in local and big touring productions?  The answer is to turn the musical over to Ray of Light Theatre and let this proven gem for producing quirky musicals with Broadway quality and flair (and an added edge others dare not employ) have at it.  The outrageously enthusiastic crowd on opening night at San Francisco’s Victoria Theatre roared their resounding approval hearing the opening bars of Little Shop of Horrors, assuring that Ray of Light’s production of this Howard Ashman (book and lyrics) and Alan Menken (music) classic is bound to be another sold-out run and success.

Katrina McGraw, Phaedra Johnson & Jacqueline Dennis
Time and again, Ray of Light finds some of the best voices and creative talent in the Bay Area to electrify its stage.  The moment the three Skid Row drop-outs -- Chiffon (Phaedra Johnson), Crystal (Katrina McGraw), and Ronnette (Jacqueline Dennis) – blend and blast their Motown sounds of “shing-a-lang,” “sha-la-la,” and “sh-bop” as they sing about the “little shoppa horrors,” there is no doubt the evening is going to be a rousing winner.  Once the three are joined by the entire cast for the first big number, “Downtown (Skid Row),” the whole joint is jumping, swaying, and doing all they can to resist singing along.  As the three appear time and again crouched in some dark corner, peering high in the rafters with the band, or joined in dance lines as shadows to the main characters of the story, this doo-wop Greek Chorus uses their smooth, snappy, sassy moves and steps to show off their fabulous, nightclub-ready voices.  The Johnson/McGraw/Dennis trio is well worth the price of the ticket and together – in my opinion -- are the big stars of the evening among a cast full of other excellent singers/performers.

The story they help narrate and highlight is well known and simple.  A flower shop in the middle of a ghetto is about to go out of business until a loser of a sweet guy named Seymour discovers that a little, sick plant with a big mouth likes his blood, a succulent he names Audrey II.  Those few drops fertilize a fantastical turn-around for him, for his dippy blonde and shop mate named Audrey whom he silently adores (but who is stuck in an abusive relationship with a nitrous-oxide-loving dentist), and for his boss -- the cranky floral failure, Mr. Mushnik.  The more human blood the plant consumes, the larger she grows; and the richer and seemingly happier the other three become.  But the ever-increasing greed for more human blood (and body and bones) by the plant and for more fame and fortune by Seymour to share with his beloved Audrey leads to disasters on all parts – except for the now firmly rooted Audrey II.

Sam Faustine
Sam Faustine and Mary Kalita are a fine matched pair as the dorky but cute Seymour in his dumpy, plaid vest and over-sized glasses and as the tight-skirted, sweet, and shy Audrey, who sports a black eye from her dentist and a kind heart for Seymour.  When Seymour sings “Grow for Me” to his still sickly plant, he brings a boyish voice that cuts through the air with a sound right out of a 1950s TV show.  In a later number (“Feed Me [Git It]”), he initially swoons in easily-lifted tones, “I don’t know,” and then hammers in aggressive duet with Audrey II, “The guy sure looks like plant food to me.”  Mr. Faustine lets his vocals fully express his love for Audrey when they both excel with heart-swelled intensity in the duet reprise of “Somewhere That’s Green” as Seymour reaches with fabulous falsetto notes to dream of a life that is not to be.

Mary Kalita
Even more convincing in her singing is Mary Kalita as Audrey.   In her initial “Somewhere That’s Green,” her voice rich in Bowery dialect is full of naïve, dreamy hope -- almost cartoonish at times in its tone but with the dynamics, well-timed pauses, and threads of clarity that speak volumes of her musical abilities.  As the musical progresses, Audrey gains her confidence of character that is beautifully reflected in full-voiced, resounding numbers like “Suddenly Seymour.”  Ms. Kalita takes the abused and bruised, self-deprecating Audrey and turns her into a joyful, exuberant girlfriend who sings, “With sweet understanding, Seymour’s my man.”

Brendon North
Another absolute stand-out in this cast is Brendon North who not only plays the sleazy, sick-minded, but still sensuous dentist, Orin, but also a number of other bizarre walk-ons including an all-too-gay NBC executive, a “Life Magazine” editor in drag, and an oily, glad-handed talent agent named Skip Snip.  But it is as the nitrous-oxide addict Orin that Mr. North gets to shine, singing “Dentist” in his deep, guttural voice that oozes with evil, matched by eyes that look like big glass balls glaring their devilment. 

Tim Hart
Not always measuring up vocally but bringing a character that looks at times like he stepped out of the Sunday Funnies is Tim Hart at Mr. Mushnik.  His Jewish characterizations are endearing and funny without stepping too far over the line.  When he sings “Mushnik and Son” with Seymour, the choreographed sequence designed by Lauren Rosi of exaggerated dance steps from tango to ballet swing (and ending in a pose Michelangelo might find perfect for a ceiling) is nothing short of hilarious, as witnessed by the uproar from the audience.

Audrey II (Jessica Coker) & Seymour (Sam Faustine)
An innovation Director Jason Hoover has brought to this production is to cast the voice of Audrey II as a woman rather than a deep-voiced man.  Jessica Coker certainly wakes up all listening (including Seymour) when they first hear her high, feminine speaking voice, “Feed me ... Feed me now!”   As the plant grows more monstrous in size and demands, Ms. Coker lets loose in “Suppertime” with voice big and boisterous.  However, there is missing in this Audrey II the over-whelming, jarring, deep-welled vocals that can make the wide-mouthed mammoth bigger than earthly life could possibly ever produce.

Puppet Designer Devon LaBelle has created several generations of ever-blossoming-in-size Audrey II’s.  On the slight end of the range is the cute, shuddering-in-shyness sprig with over-sized head that Seymour holds (and manipulates cleverly with his own hands).  By the end, Audrey II is a colossal, bloated, leggy beast with shark-like teeth in her cave-like mouth that eats up all the space in the flower shop as well as all its inhabitants.  Billy Raphael and Josiah Minued are somewhere deep in her bowels, expertly operating her every move, twist, bite, and outstretched root.  (They each also play a variety of ensemble roles – mostly of the wino variety -- while Audrey II is still in her younger, anemic stages.)

Music Director Ben Prince has assembled and directs an excellent orchestra hidden in the heights above the stage.  The set’s massive wall is a mixture of corrugated metal, chain fence, and the kinds of discarded boxes, pipes, and garbage one might find in any urban Skid Row.  When Chrissy Curl’s set opens to reveal the small flower shop, dingy and depressed is its ‘pre-Audrey II’ look while things spruce up nicely as her fame grows -- the contrast aided greatly by the lighting design of Kevin Landesman.  (Particularly clever and funny is Ms. Curl’s revelation of Orin’s dentist office.)  Maggie Whitaker and Lexie Lazear combine their talented forces to create each character’s look of the early ‘60s and of the down-and-out and/or the just plain off-beat and wacky through their designed costumes and make-up/wigs, respectively.

The one production issue that continues too often to plague Ray of Light (and other) productions in the old, cavernous Victoria Theatre is sound.  Even though Anton Hedman is a known, accomplished sound engineer, on opening night there were times when the volume balance was off.  The crucial, opening, off-stage voice recalling a time when the human race “suddenly encountered a deadly threat” was so muddled that unless one had seen the musical previously, the set-up was probably lost.  On the other end, the company’s “Finale Ultimo (Don’t Feed the Plants)” was so miss-miked that too many of the final lyrics were lost.  Volume and clarity adjustments hopefully will be made as the show progresses, but it is disappointing that this is an ongoing issue at the Victoria.

But be assured, Ray of Light Theatre has once again opened a show that its growing audiences of loyal fans are going to flock to see and come away delighted (as well as humming, probably singing the well-known classics of Little Shop of Horrors).  This “shoppa horrors” is do-wop fun for sure.

Rating: 4 E

Little Shop of Horrors continues through October 8, 2016 at Victoria Theatre, 2961 16th Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at

Photo by Eric Skanlon

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