Little Shop of Horrors at Actor’s Express. (Photo by Casey Gardner)

Actor’s Express is presenting the musical play “Little Shop of Horrors,” book and lyrics by Howard Ashman and music by Harold Menken, directed by Rick Lombardo; it runs through August 20. The show is based on a 1960 film by Roger Corman, but it really came to theatrical light when it opened Off-Broadway in 1982.

“Little Shop” opened at the Orpheum Theatre in New York’s East Village and took off; it ran for five years. I saw the show there (the old theatre is still going strong; “Stomp” has been running since 1994!), and what I remember most is the curtain call. I was sitting in the mezzanine, and all over the theatre, hanging plant tendrils fell from the ceiling onto the heads of the audience.

This was both hilarious and creepy, because “Little Shop” is about a bloodthirsty, man-eating plant named Audrey II, whose growth and murderous deeds are apparently unstoppable. One seldom experiences the tactile as an audience member, but you certainly did then. The Express’ production does not have the descending tendrils.

We’re on Skid Row in NYC in the 1960’s; three “street urchins” set the scene for us: Crystal (Brittani Minnieweather), Ronette (Trevor Perry), and Chiffon (Kiona D. Reese) comment on the action like a funky Greek chorus throughout the show.

Seymour (Juan Carlos Unzueta) is a somewhat dorky but spunky young man who works in Mushnik’s Skid Row Florists (in case the customers forget where they are), owned by the sourpuss Mr. Mushnik (William S. Murphey). Seymour has a crush on the pretty blonde Audrey (Kylie Brown); unfortunately, Audrey’s current boyfriend is the sadistic dentist Orin (Clint Clark).

Seymour has recently obtained a mysterious plant resembling a Venus flytrap (“a devouring organism, aptly named for the goddess of love”: Mrs. Venable in “Suddenly Last Summer”; couldn’t resist). The quote is rather apropos because Seymour makes the disconcerting discovery that the plant (whom he calls Audrey II in honor of Audrey) requires human blood to survive (there was a total eclipse of the sun, you see).

Meanwhile, the human Audrey wants to leave her abusive boyfriend (don’t sit in his dentist’s chair!). And once Audrey II is fed (by some drops of Seymour’s blood), she starts to grow—big time. Audrey not only thrives, she speaks (“Feed me!” you’ve probably heard).
Audrey II becomes a real customer attraction and Mushnik offers to adopt Seymour (an orphan) as a son and full partner. But things fall apart. Orin must be sacrificed to Audrey II; Mushnik suspects foul play, and one victim follows another. But Audrey II (played by a real singing person in this production: Kandice Arrington) is blooming—more and more. Ms. Arrington sings very well, by the way.

It seems to me that most of the leads were “pushing” on opening night: too much constant fortissimo singing (even Mr. Murphey’s speaking voice, a powerful gift, could be toned down a bit); it’s as though the actors didn’t trust the material and were trying to overcompensate. Mr. Unzueta makes a likable Seymour, but there’s not much chemistry between him and Ms. Brown’s Audrey, once they discover their affection for each other. Max Mattox, Emily Stembridge, and Abby Holland complete the ensemble.

Actually, for this viewer, the show is just not wearing very well; it somehow seems a bit dated. Its dark humor is elusive for some reason. Maybe I’ve been spoiled by some of the Express’ musical hits of the past, such as “Rent,” “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” and others. By the way, Amanda Wansa Morgan is the music director here, and her band sounds fine.

On the other hand, the dead of summer may be a perfect time for a light and wacky piece like “Little Shop,” and you may very well have a great time. Just don’t expect those tendrils to drop.

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