Audiences who stroll into the Mercury Theater for “Little Shop of Horrors” expecting a tuneful, B-movie bloodbath might be surprised to discover something else: a love story. While director Walter Stearns take on the classic Alan Menken musical still features an evil, carnivorous plant as its centerpiece, the poor leafy dear can’t hold a candle to the star-crossed lovers Seymour and Audrey. Actors Christopher Kale Jones and Dana Tretta render the pair with such a deep wellspring of emotion that there’s little Audrey II (that’s the plant) can do but cede the spotlight and hope for the best. Audrey II is a killer, but it’s the chemistry between those two that kills.
‘Little Shop of Horrors’ ★★★1⁄2 When: Through April 28. Where: Mercury Theater, 3745 N. Southport Tickets: $35-$65 Info: MercuryTheaterChicago.com Run time: 2 hours, with one intermission
Buoyed by the stellar 1986 film adaption from Frank Oz (starring a perfectly cast Rick Moranis and featuring a very different ending), “Little Shop of Horrors” has long straddled the line between cult classic and just plain classic. Menken would go on to huge success with Disney, scoring “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast,” and “Aladdin,” among many others (racking up eight Oscars in the process), so it’s no surprise that his score for “Little Shop” is riddled with earworms. Songs like “Skid Row,” “Somewhere That’s Green,” “Dentist!,” “Feed Me (Git It),” and “Suddenly, Seymour”— all featuring lyrics by Howard Ashman, who also wrote the book —actually make “Little Shop” a dark horse contender for best musical of the 1980s.
While its complete lack of bombast compared to Reagan-era megahits like “Les Miserables,” “Cats,” and “Phantom of the Opera” seemed to have harmed it at the time — the original production ran for five years but never made it off Off Broadway — its small scale charms have contributed to a thriving afterlife in community and local theaters nationwide. And while the show did finally make it to Broadway in 2003, it does seem more at home in smaller venues like the Mercury. Intimate environs allow for productions likes this one, which prioritize genuine, emotional heft over cheap laughs or easy razzmatazz.
At least it does that most of the time. After a rollicking opening number courtesy of the show’s all-purpose girl group/Greek chorus (played by the superb trio of Shantel Cribbs, Nicole Lambert, and Adhana Reid, with choreography by Christopher Carter) “Little Shop” hits a slightly false note. When Audrey enters the Skid Row florist shop where she and Seymour work, the show makes a bit out of her trying to hide her black-eye, courtesy of an abusive boyfriend. It’s not great. Part of this is the script’s fault — its light touch treatment of domestic abuse is wildly dated — but the production leans into it, which isn’t much better. Thankfully, moments like that are few and far between.
As Seymour’s strange new bloodsucking plant starts to deliver good fortune onto the pair — and also onto their boss, the cranky Mr. Mushnik (Tommy Novak) — their matching his-and-hers inferiority complexes comes to the fore. When Audrey’s big dream is nothing more than a nice house in the suburbs, it’s quite a bit heartbreaking and strangely up-to-date. The musical may have been written in the 1980s and set vaguely in the 1950s, but “Somewhere That’s Green” sure did resonate with this here millennial. (Homeownership? Surely, you jest.) The song does some of the work, but a lot of that resonance emanates from the way Tretta sings it — and the time she takes to let Audrey’s sweet little dreams play out across her face.
Meanwhile, as Audrey II (voiced by Jonah Winston and impressively puppeteered by Sam Woods) graduates from tiny blood drops to chopped up body parts, Jones cranks the desperation up to 11. When Seymour pulls a gun on Audrey’s sadistic boyfriend Orin (David Sajewich), hoping to turn him into plant food, it’s an act of pure love. Seymour’s ardor for Audrey is so palpable in Jones’ performance that he’s practically vibrating with it. In an age that has its share for aggrieved nerds, it could be very easy for Seymour to go wrong, so it’s a testament to Jones that such thoughts barely register. This guy’s the real deal.
Sajewich is quite good in a number of smaller roles — although his performance as Orin nails the mania but misses the menace—while Novak’s Mushnik is just right. The show is exquisitely sung and the action rarely drags, despite Stearns’ intermittently successful penchant for drawing out comedic bits. As for Jones and Tretta — well, they’re both a bit old to play Romeo and Juliet, but I think a waiver could be issued in this case. Leave the plant, take the love story.
Alex Huntsberger is a local freelance writer.