‘Little Shop of Horrors’ feeds on insatiable appetite for success

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Michael Mahler plays Seymour, seen here with his all-devouring plant, Audrey II, in the American Blues Theater production of “Little Shop of Horrors.” (Photo: Johnny Knight)

“Little Shop of Horrors” began life as a 1960 mock horror film by Roger Corman that won a cult following. In 1982 it became an even bigger success in the form of an off-Broadway musical richly animated by a doo-wop-to-early-’60s rock score by Alan Menken, and a book and lyrics by Howard Ashman that had just the right mix of sweetness and incisive bite.

Now, in a fast-paced, zestily sung revival by American Blues Theater, director Jonathan Berry and his cast highlight the Faustian bargain that (quite literally) eats away at the heart and soul of the story. And if you know anything about Berry — whose predilection for dark tales about emotional and financial inequities is well-established — this should come as no surprise. The show, under the galvanic music direction of Austin Cook, and with performers who can wrap their formidable voices around ballads one minute and then belt out the most ringing rhythm and blues number the next, asks this timely question: What price are you willing to pay for success, whether its seductions come in the form of celebrity, wealth or, most crucially, love?

In fact, by the end of the show’s first act, Seymour (an ideally guileless Michael Mahler) — the hapless orphan who works as an assistant to Mr. Mushnik (Mark David Kaplan), owner of a dreary florist shop on New York’s Skid Row — realizes that he is facing a monumental ethical (and moral) dilemma with impossibly high stakes. The devil, as is well known, deals in hard bargains.

Eunice Woods (from left), Camille Robinson and Jasondra Johnson form the chorus in the American Blues Theater production of “Little Shop of Horrors.” (Photo: Johnny Knight)

Eunice Woods (from left), Camille Robinson and Jasondra Johnson form the chorus in the American Blues Theater production of “Little Shop of Horrors.” (Photo: Johnny Knight)

‘LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS’ Highly recommended When: Through June 26 Where: American Blues Theater atGreenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Tickets: $19 – $49 Info:www.americanbluestheater.com Runs: 2 hours and five minuteswith one intermission

The plot linebegins in a flowerpot, with a rollicking female chorus comprised of Ronnette (Jasondra Johnson), Chiffon (Eunice Woods) and Crystal (Camille Robinson), supplying sassy commentary throughout. (This volcanic-voiced trio, which all but steals the show, has its own experience of success, gradually morphing from high school dropouts to glamour girls in gowns who suggest the Supremes.)

At the very moment Mushnik decides business is so bad he must close his shop for good, Seymour discovers an exotic plant that appears during a sudden eclipse of the sun. He names it after his fellow shop assistant, Audrey (power-voiced Dara Cameron, who winningly captures her character’s battered soul and simple yearnings), the pretty girl he secretly adores but whose low self-esteem results in her dating Orin (Ian Paul Custer), a horribly sadistic dentist. And almost as soon as he puts Audrey II on display in the shop window, business begins to take off.

But the plant (a gargantuan, multi-tentacled, power-mouthed puppet creation designed by Sarah Ross, and expertly “operated” by Matthew Sitz and voiced by Lorenzo Rush Jr.) makes formidable demands. It thrives on human blood, and the initial droplets from Seymour’s fingers are not nearly enough to satisfy it. Its unappeasable appetite demands human sacrifice, and complicating matters is the fact that as it grows, so do Seymour’s prospects in life. Not only does he suddenly become a media darling with many lucrative job offers, but he gains the confidence to pursue Audrey. One appetite feeds the other. And there is even a mock Wagnerian “love-death” scene.

Kaplan wins laughs with his Fagin-like Yiddish tonalities. Custer, who is just sick and twisted enough as Orin, also finesses a couple of deft cameos, as do the “Street Derelicts” (Darian Tene and Yando Lopez). The terrific offstage band (Cook on keyboard, Malcolm Ruhl on bass, Michael Weatherspoon on drums, Shaun Whitley on guitar and keyboard and Sitz on auxiliary percussion) rocks the room. And at Friday’s opening night performance, Mahler and Cameron, who are real-life husband and wife, earned applause for blithely singing through the manic “Call Back in the Morning,” even as their coiled phone cords got tangled. (They should make this a permanent bit in the show.)

Grant Sabin’s sliding panel set, Heather Gilbert’s moody lighting and Izumi Inaba’s colorful ’60s pop-art-style costumes are just playful enough to make “Little Shop” feel like the quintessential urban fairy tale — Grimm-like and often grimly funny and touching. The show easily could have a contemporary update, too, for Mushnik’s shop is no doubt a posh boutique these days, with neighboring Skid Row tenements turned into high-rent apartments whose landlords might bellow Audrey II’s command: “Feed me!”

Mark David Kaplan (from left), Michael Mahler and Dara Cameron in the American Blues Theater production of “Little Shop of Horrors.” (Photo: Johnny Knight)

Mark David Kaplan (from left), Michael Mahler and Dara Cameron in the American Blues Theater production of “Little Shop of Horrors.” (Photo: Johnny Knight)

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