Review by Gail M. Burns, November 2005

There is much that is good about the Drury Drama Team’s production of Little Shop of Horrors, and some pieces that don’t quite work.

The most important thing that is immediately apparent is how much fun the kids involved in this production are having and how proud they are of their accomplishments. Since this is an educational theatre production, nothing is more important than what the cast and crew learn from their experience, and learning takes place most successfully in an atmosphere of fun and camaraderie. The audience, including your Curmudgeonly Critic, are merely voyeurs invited in at the end of the learning process.

Little Shop is a small cast musical. It can be successfully mounted with fewer than ten actors. Here many of the roles usually doubled in professional productions, where each additional actor means an additional salary to pay, are played by different actors, in order to give more students a chance to participate. But there are only eight singing parts and all of the numbers other than the ensemble Skid Row are solos, duets, or trios. Furthermore the score is just packed with wonderful and witty songs, clever pastiches of late 1950’s-early 1960’s pop standards, which are well known and well loved. The leads have to be strong singers, and here is where there are some weak links in the Drury cast.

My other concern about this production was that it just seemed off the mark. It is clear from his program notes that director Len Radin understands Little Shop‘s serious Faustian roots, yet Radin and his actors seemed more interested in playing the show as musical comedy, which it is not. The “jokes” in Little Shop spring directly from character and situation, both of which are tragic rather than comic in nature. This is a show where you have to laugh or else you’ll run screaming from the theatre. By playing the tragic figures like Seymour Krelborn and Audrey as funny happy people, the show is bled of both its pathos and its humor.

But as I said at the outset, everyone involved seems extremely happy to be doing this show. Whether or not I agree with their approach to the material, the actors perform with great zest and energy. Little Shop of Horrors is currently tied with Our Town (which Drury presented last year) as the most-produced play in high schools throughout America. This is a production that will have a fond place in these young people’s memories for many years to come.

Little Shop of Horrors first appeared in 1960 as a low-budget black and white Roger Corman horror flick. In 1982 Howard Ashman and Alan Menken (who later did the scores for the Disney films Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, and The Little Mermaid) adapted the film into this wildly successful musical version, which became the third longest-running musical in Off-Broadway history, as well as the highest-grossing musical in Off-Broadway history. A 1986 film version, directed by Muppeteer Frank Oz (aka Miss Piggy) immortalized Ellen Greene’s moving portrayal of Audrey and featured amazing and fearsome Audrey II puppets from Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. Despite its tremendous popularity, Little Shop didn’t receive a Broadway production until 2003. That production, which made no substantive changes to the book, score, or concept, is currently on tour.

The basic plot finds the orphaned Seymour Krelborn (Tom Morrill) and the hapless Audrey (Lauren Skeffington) employed at by Mr. Mushnik (Chris Gutierrez) at his Skid Row Flower Shop. Mushkin is about to close for lack of business when Audrey convinces Seymour to show him the strange and unusual plant he’s been working on. This seemingly harmless flytrap, which Seymour has named Audrey II (voiced by Ed Horsfall), instantly attracts customers and media attention, but Seymour immediately discovers the price he has to pay – Audrey II eats human blood. As the shop thrives, Seymour’s fame grows, and he receives more attention from his beloved Audrey, the plant demands that he kill. Audrey’s abusive boyfriend, Orin Scravello, DDS, (Charlie Manuel) becomes its first meal.

Commenting musically on all the proceedings are Crystal (Kimberly Rose), Ronnette (Emily May), and Chiffon (Samantha Therrien), three skid row street urchins who sing, as their names imply, in the style of the 1960’s “girl groups.”

Of the three on-stage leads, Morrill boasts the best singing voice, but, as I said before, he makes Seymour a little too smart-allecky for my taste. Skiffington does a nice job with the breathy voice and broadly New Yawk accent that Greene’s performance has indelibly tied to Audrey. Alas, Skiffington also aspires to sing like Greene, a daunting task and one she is not capable of. I enjoyed seeing a red-headed Audrey though, as Skiffington uses her own lovely locks instead of resorting to the usual bottle-blonde bouffant associated with the character.

Gutierrez plays the stereotypical role of Mushkin broadly, masking his uncertain singing abilities (I suspect a voice change is underway) with brash characterization.

Thankfully, Rose, May, and Therrien are all strong singers, who handle their tricky harmonies as well as their solo spots with confidence. Rose is a stand out as she belts out the opening lines of Skid Row.

And then there’s Charlie Manuel as both Orin and a pushy media mogul named Mrs. Luce. What can I say? Both performances (the latter in full and impressive drag) are full throttle over the top laugh riots. Now if I hadn’t seen Manuel turn in nuanced performances in completely different roles over the years at Drury, I would be less lavish with my praise. But since I know that Manuel has more to offer than just broad humor, I enjoyed seeing this aspect of his talent as well. It is rare to see a high school performer with the confidence to make a complete and hilarious fool of himself on stage, and to do it well. I hope Manuel continues performing and growing as an actor once he graduates from Drury this spring.

A few years back I scolded the boys at Drury for not taking the opportunity to become involved with the Drama Team, necessitating the appearance of alumni “ringers” in a few productions. Now not only are there strong talents like Morrill and Gutierrez on board, but newcomers Trevor Foehl and Cody Johnson also show promise. They both tackle small speaking parts and take a hand at manipulating the larger Audrey II puppets. Johnson gets the tricky task of inhabiting the third largest plant puppet, the one that literally requires the puppeteer to do sit-ups in order to open and close the mouth in time with the off-stage singer. He must have abs of steel by now!

Three elementary school students – Samantha Andrews and Emma Shen Arabia and Anna Arabia – also appear in Little Shop. Amazingly, this is a third Drama Team production for all three, having appeared in The Wizard of Oz and Our Town. Here Andrews manipulates the smallest Audrey II puppet, while the Arabia sisters add lively tentacles to the largest puppet’s features. What fun for them!

My younger son Brandon and I are big fans of Little Shop. For many years now we have traveled around New England seeing various productions, most recently taking in the National Tour of the recent Broadway production when it came to the Bushnell in Hartford last February.

When he was younger, my son was really quite scared of the wo/man-eating plant, Audrey II, and I used to take him backstage to see the puppets whenever the director would allow, so that he could understand how the illusion was created. We have now become Audrey II experts, and we concur that, ignoring the multi-million dollar puppets we saw at the Bushnell, the Audrey II puppets created by Ron and Tiger Waterman for the Drury production are absolutely the best we have ever seen.

The Watermans have created four Audrey II puppets, in ever increasing sizes. The first two versions are non-speaking hand puppets, each manipulated by one performer, (Samantha Andrews and Tom Morrill as Seymour respectively). The third version is the aforementioned full body puppet, worn and operated by Cody Johnson. And the fourth iteration, the one that actually swallows people whole, is a mammoth creation requiring five puppeteers to operate it – Andrews, Johnson, Foehl, and the Arabia sisters. This final puppet is not only impressive in size and complexity, but also a thing of real beauty (well, as beautiful as wo/man-eating plants get). The “skin” features elaborate blue and gold swirls that reminded me strongly of Vincent Van Gogh’s masterpiece Starry Night.

Both the third and fourth speaking versions of Audrey II are voiced off-stage by Ed Horsfall. It is an accomplishment for any young man to sing bass by the time he’s a junior in high school, and I was pleased to read in the program that Horsfall puts his talent to good use in the Drury Chorus and the First Congregational Church Choir, and that he intends to try out for the District Chorus this year.

While this production of Little Shop may not be Drury strongest musical outing, it is good scary fun and seeing the Watermans’ fabulous Audrey IIs come to life is definitely worth the price of admission. Give yourself a calorie-free pre-Thanksgiving treat and go!

The Drury Drama Team production of Little Shop of Horrors runs November 10, 11, 18 & 19 at 7 p.m. at Drury Senior High School (413-662-3240), 1130 South Church Street (Rt. 8A) in North Adams. The show runs a zippy hour and forty-five minutes, with one intermission, and is suitable for kids 8 and up. Tickets are $9 for adults and $7 for students. You can further support the Drama Team by buying a nifty flower-pot-shaped coffee mug ($10) at intermission!

copyright Gail M. Burns, 2005

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