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All Things Entertaining and Cultural

Little Shop of Horrors — Bristol Riverside Theatre

Little Shop -- interiorBristol Riverside Theatre’s “Little Shops of Horrors” is proof a basic model can serve a durable classic as well as a luxury vehicle with all the bells and whistles.

Susan D. Atkinson’s production is as simple and straightforward as any rendition of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s musical about a megalomaniacal carnivorous plant, and the nebbish who tends it, can be. It moves at a lively pace and tells the story of bloody doings in a Skid Row florist shop in an entertaining fashion with no frills but with no weak points either. Ashman and Menken’s musical machine flows evenly and divertingly from the opening when you’re warned something sinister is about to occur to the end when you’re advised not to feed the plants. High points come from the performances of Laura Giknis as Audrey and Berlando Drake as Ronnette, one of the trio that serves as a chorus for “Little Shop’s” action, but for the most part Atkinson delivers a show that is amusing and satisfying without becoming outstanding.

I make that last remark to put Bristol’s “Little Shop” in perspective, not to denigrate it. One of the more difficult things for a reviewer to do is find the precise way to express when a production falls in that middle area where it entertains and provides a lot of fun but is only momentarily inventive or special. Everything about Bristol’s “Little Shop” is up to or beyond par. It may not amaze you, but it will keep you happy you came to see it.

Atkinson lets “Little Shop’s” intrinsic elements do the work. Ashman and Menken wrote a catchy score that can be droll and sweet at the same time in “Somewhere That’s Green,” harmonic and heartfelt in “Suddenly Seymour,” sardonically funny in “Dentist!,” archly humorous in “Feed Me,” and neatly revelatory in “Please Grow For Me.” You have to love a show that makes a dream of “plastic on the furniture to keep it nice and clean,” shows the wisdom of a mother’s advice to a sadistic child, and comes to a conclusion like “the guy sure looks like plant food to me.”

Ashman and Menken, taking their cues from Roger Corman and Charles Griffith, who directed and wrote the 1950’s B-movie on which “Little Shop” is based, provided all one needs to give one a good time. Atkinson had the good sense to stay out of the way of the show’s progress and just made sure it moved at a good, animated speed and let the audience see all the clues that turn “Little Shop” from a tale of botanic and commercial victory to one of murder and mayhem. Her work, and the work of her cast and designers, is solid throughout. If Bristol’s “Little Shop” never soars above standard, it never falls or bogs down. A likeable nuclear cast that holds the line between character and caricature keeps everything moving apace and brings out all of the diabolical fun in Ashman and Menken’s piece.

“Little Shop of Horrors” is set in a Skid Row flower shop run by Mr. Mushnik who despairs about selling a weed, let alone a bouquet, from his rundown store in which nothing looks to be in bloom and shrubs look as dusty and untended as the unwashed windows. Even when a decent sale is made, Mushnik’s clerks have to wrap wilted flowers within vibrant ones — an Atkinson touch — to fill the order. As Ashman’s lyric says, life is “no-go” on this Skid Row.

Just as Mushnik determines to abandon his shop and go broke in a different way, his helper Audrey, eggs on her colleague, Seymour, an urchin Mushnik fished from the streets and raised as his son and doer of all manual labor, to show the florist a plant he has been cultivating.

Seymour produces an exotic-looking specimen that is unusual and that Audrey thinks will garner attention if it’s displayed.

At Bristol, the first sight of this plant, dubbed Audrey II by Seymour who is infatuated with the actual Audrey, is disappointing. The plant looks unique but it has no charm. From the beginning, its strangeness is signaled. In this early stage, Audrey II already doesn’t appear to be a flower. You can see its jaw-like structure and can tell it’s made from cloth. This isn’t a dreadful mistake in that most of the audience knows the “Little Shop” story, but it does derail some mystery and also makes one wonder why any passerby would gawk at this charmless Audrey II that looks like a fish head lodged in a dollar-store flower pot with felt bunting.

The script says Audrey II becomes a sensation, and the script prevails. Bristol’s Audrey II, though well manipulated by puppeteer Nate Golden and well voiced by Carl Clemons-Hopkins,  never becomes an attractive creature. Nor does it have leaves, roots, or offshoots that move of their own volition to make Audrey II more threatening and potentially deadly. Bristol’s Audrey II is pretty much stationary. All one has to do to avoid it is not go near it. Yet it serves the purpose “Little Shop” prescribes and is effective in the long run. Limited though the Bristol construction is, Atkinson has the plant’s head set as various positions that can be menacing or flirtatious and give Audrey II expression and personality. Clemons-Hopkins endows “Twoey” with a powerful bass voice and an insistent tone that adds to “Little Shop’s” grisliness and humor.

Once Audrey II fulfills Audrey’s prophecy and becomes a major conversation piece that leads to media interviews with Seymour, “Little Shop” becomes a felicitous combination of horror story, romance, and look at young people finding a way to climb out of Skid Row poverty and realize their modest dreams.

The show has many sources of comedy. One is Audrey’s abusive boyfriend, Orin, a dentist who drives a motorcycle and who wields a drill, one with a rusty bit, as sadistically as a hood played by James Dean or Marlon Brando would brandish a switchblade. Danny Vaccaro may overplay Orin by making his mannerisms broader than necessary and his manner less comic than comic book so he resembles a dentist from “Grease,” but he sells the number in which Orin informs us that once his mother saw him torturing animals as a little boy, she knew the right profession for him, “Dentist!” His arrival on Skid Row also sets up a sharp sequence in which Drake and her chorusmates strut threateningly towards Orin and chastise him for his violence to Audrey.

In the midst of its laughs and its gore, ‘Little Shop” also harbors a love story. Seymour has been attracted to Audrey since she started working at Mushnik’s. Audrey takes a sisterly like to Seymour but doesn’t realize his “inner beauty” until Orin has been chopped from the picture, and Seymour matures some because of the attention from his success.

Laura Giknis is an affecting Audrey. She, more than anyone in the Bristol cast, transcends the stereotype of a her character, in Audrey’s case a dumb, cheap blonde with questionable taste in clothing and men, to be a dimensional person about whom the audience can care.

Giknis endows Audrey with brains and sensitivity. She is self-aware in a way that gives extra texture to some of Ashman’s lines, particularly the one in which Audrey says she puts up with Orin’s abuse because a girl from her background has to take what she can get, and a dentist is more than she ever expected. She also shows a lot of heart that comes through in a rendition of “Somewhere That’s Green” that’s as touching in regard to Audrey as it is ironically naive in regard to the things she wants from life.

Giknis is convincing in the scene in which Audrey realizes she has more than a friendly affection for Seymour and shows nobility in the scene in which she sacrifices something vital for Seymour’s well-being. The actress gets the most from her character and sings beautifully and with feeling.

Giknis also makes an attractive Audrey. You could see why a man, even a creep like Orin, would take an interest in her. She doesn’t seem like someone who is totally rooted to Skid Row. In Bristol, even her clothes have a touch of class. In spite of the script referring to Audrey’s tawdry style, costumer Linda B. Stockton gives her only one dress, a leopard number, that can be called garish. Other than that, Stockton dresses Audrey in bright, monochrome dresses (red, royal blue) that may be tight and revealing but are in keeping with ’50s fashions and never trashy or slutty. In fact, they can be regarded as stylish in Monroe-ish way.

Andrew McMath as Seymour and Daniel Marcus as Mushnik are assets to the production. Neither adds the nuance or subtlety to his character the way Giknis does, but both are strong and sincere in their portrayals.

I like that McMath is more a nerd by circumstance than by instinct. He is not gawky or slow like most Seymours. If he dresses badly and holds his eyeglasses together with a strip of white adhesive tape around the nosepiece, it reflects more on Skid Row and Mushnik not investing more than the minimum in Seymour than any lapse of taste. Except for running errands to the flower market, Seymour rarely leaves Mushnik’s shop. How can he know the world or what is accepted in it.

Because McMath’s Seymour  is more handsome and more “regular guy” than usual, his interest in both botany and Audrey become more plausible. These traits also make it more believable when Seymour becomes a tad more worldly and matures during the time he is being sought by the press and offered a television show on plant care.

McMath is a fine singer. His “Suddenly Seymour” duet with Giknis has musical excitement to go with Ashman’s sweetly sentimental lyrics.

In terms of acting, McMath and Marcus have the strongest dramatic scene in Bristol’s “Little Shop” when Mushnik confronts Seymour with information he’s received from the police and a bit of evidence he finds in the rarely collected Skid Row trash cans.

Atkinson was smart to give this sequence a different pace and dramatic tone than the rest of her production. The choice to be slower and more deliberate gives weight to the passage and establishes its importance as a pivotal moment in the “Little Shop” story.

Marcus matches Atkinson’s production by being a good solid Mushnik. His canniness drives the accusation scene between Mushnik and Seymour. In general, Marcus is appropriately flinty and avuncular in playing a character that is at first harried by worry about how to make ends meet and later a bit of a skinflint in giving Audrey and Seymour their due in terms of money and respect.

Marcus conveys the small-time businessman well.

Another sequence that stands out in Bristol’s “Little Shop” is the second act opener in which Seymour and Audrey have trouble keeping up with all the telephone calls for orders the notoriety of Audrey II has generated. “Call Back in the Morning” has all of the traits and verve of a classic number from a ’50s or ’60s musical and is a good change of pace in Ashman and Menken’s score in addition to providing information that moves “Little Shop’s” story forward.

Danny Vaccaro plays a number of parts. Once his services are no longer required as Orin, he portrays all of the hustlers, dealmakers, and agents who come after Seymour to work for them. Vaccaro varies these characters nicely. One cavil, that is Stockton’s fault not Vaccaro’s, is the suit Vaccaro wears while playing an NBC producer venturing to Skid Row to offer Seymour a TV deal. Stockton obviously never visited a pre-’90s television station. No one from NBC would dress as shabbily and tastelessly, in particular a producer. Save that costume for a cop or the dude from the plant distribution company. NBC’s rep should have the sharpest suit.

Vaccaro’s Orin is entertaining. The character is already a joke, a comic baddy who blackens Audrey’s eye and demeans her in front of other people, one the tone of “Little Shop” keeps you from taking seriously even though he does vicious and odious things. To my mind, Vaccaro exaggerates the joke and becomes overstated. I’d cut down his mannerisms as Orin by a quarter. He is funny and effective in the scene when Orin is overcome by nitrous oxide.

The three women who play the chorus are a lively, tuneful group. Berlando Drake stood out among them because of her relative classiness and dancing ability. I tended to focus on her during musical numbers. The Bristol cast, McMath in particular, is not aces at dancing, a regional theater curse, so it’s up to Drake, Lindsey Warren, and Candace Thomas to muster some choreographic excitement. They come through, with Drake having a bit of extra oomph. Warren is excellent in some dramatic moments, especially when the Skid Row girls go after Orin.

Whether he’s using his deepest bass to intone “downtown” in “Little Shop’s opening number or barking orders as Audrey II, Carl Clemons-Hopkins has the timing and tone to get the most out of his lines.

“Little Shop of Horrors” runs through Sunday, June 8 at Bristol Riverside Theatre, 120 Radcliffe Street, in Bristol, Pa.

Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Wednesday and Saturday, and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from $50 to $42 and can be ordered by calling 215-785-0100 or going online at www.brtstage.com.

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