Chicago Theater Review: LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS (American Blues Theater)

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by Lawrence Bommer on May 7, 2016

in Theater-Chicago


American Blues Theatre seldom does musicals (the last was the wonderful Hank Williams: Lost Highway). Happily, their current triumphLittle Shop of Horrors literally roots their mission—blue-collar sagas that question and redefine the American dream—in a perfect choice, an incisive, hilarious rock sermon on the perils of selling out. Its source, Roger Corman’s crude, 1960 black-and-white film which starred a very young Jack Nicholson as a sociopathic biker dentist, never had a political agenda. But the 1982 musicalization, featuring Adam Menken’s loving pastiche of an enthralling country/Motown score and the late Howard Ashman’s savvy book and lyrics, shows only too well how unbridled capitalism and a literally devouring greed create their own demise.

Ensemble Member Michael Mahler, Ensemble Member Dara Cameron. Photo by Johnny Knight

Messages aside, this two-hour romp is ferocious fun, superbly shaped by Jonathan Berry into a pile-driving parable of undeserved poverty and equally unearned prosperity. A weird amalgam of apocalyptic sci-fi, 50s’ live-TV drama, and doo-wop nostalgia, this strangely sweet-tempered show spins a very conditional success story: Seymour Krelborn, a nebishy assistant working in an obscure and failing Skid Row Jasondra Johnson, Ensemble Member Dara Cameron, Eunice Woods, Camille Robinson. Photo by Johnny Knightflower shop, toils ingloriously for curmudgeonly Mr. Mushnik. His only hope is his hapless love for Audrey, a shy clerk who can’t quit her horrible boyfriend, a Nazi-style dentist named Orin. Cheerfully chronicling their twisted destinies is a Greek chorus/backup trio whose merry mockery points out assorted morals.

Seymour’s life changes forever during a solar eclipse when the mousey misfit discovers a carnivorous pod plant that is not, it seems, terrestrial. In very ill-chosen homage the doting dweeb fondly names it Audrey II: The exponential growth of this rapid bloomer turns the little shop into a media circus. (Interestingly, Audrey II is not just an alien intruder: A flytrap that really is from Venus, this vicious vegetable incarnates a kind of revenge of the ghetto, consuming its inhabitants like the squalor around them.) Painfully realizing that this feral flower feeds on fresh blood, Seymour immediately faces an ethical quandary: What price will he pay to make Audrey II, whose voice is a combination of Little Richard and Elvis, grow into a commercial bonanza? Well, the title gives a clue.

Mark David Kaplan, Ensemble Member Michael Mahler, Ensemble Member Dara Cameron. Photo by Johnny Knight

Austin Cook’s always reliable musical direction combines with an unimprovable 10-member cast to create a non-stop botanical delight. We’re regaled with captivating choral rousers including “Downtown,” “The Meek Shall Inherit,” and the cautionary finale “Don’t Feed the Plants.” Most ravishing are the quieter, occasionally wistful numbers: Loaded down with self-effacing self-esteem, Dara Cameron’s Audrey is never more poignant than when inventorying her bad-taste suburban fantasies in “Somewhere That’s Green.” Michael Mahler’s sad-sack Seymour is the most lovable loser turned lover as he croons “Suddenly, Seymour” to his smitten Audrey. He’s the proverbial mouse that roared.

Ian Paul Custer, Ensemble Member Michael Mahler, Ensemble Member Dara Cameron. Photo by Johnny Knight

Awesome casting and complete characterizations forge a support group from heaven. Mark David Kaplan is salt-of-the-earth sour as Mushnik, Seymour’s very ill-suited surrogate dad (“Mushnik and Son” is their less-is-less duet). As the dentist from hell, Ian Paul Custer proclaims Orin’s oral sadism in “Dentist!” and meets the literally funniest fate ever in the first-act closer “It’s Just the Gas.” As the predatory planetary plant, a bratty child bent on cosmic conquest, Lorenzo Rush Jr. erupts into the angry blues tirade in “Feed Me (Git It)”. Completing the singing roles are excellent Jasondra Johnson, Eunice Woods and Camille Robinson as Ronnette, Chiffon and Crystal, a very cool Chorus (“Don’t It Go to Show Ya Never Know”).

Eunice Woods, Camille Robinson and Jasondra Johnson. Photo by Johnny Knight

Thanks to set designer Grant Sabin, the little shop itself is a marvel of make-believe, transforming, as recklessly as the action, from a floral dump to an arrangement emporium for uptown slummers. Izumi Inaba’s class-conscious Eisenhower Era costumes and Heather Gilbert’s tabloid-lurid lighting continue the spell, and Christopher J. Neville and Sarah E. Ross deserve pointed praise for the skewering props and the ever-enlarging Audreys II. Never has this show had a greener thumb!

Ensemble Member Michael Mahler. Photo by Johnny Knight (2)

This big-hearted Little Shop will surely run all summer at the Greenhouse Theater Center, then deserves a transfer: The irresistible reasons—and more–are all above.

Ensemble Member Michael Mahler. Photo by Johnny Knightphotos by Johnny Knight

Little Shop of Horrors
American Blues Theater
Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave.
Thurs and Fri at 7:30; Sat at 3 & 7:30; Sun at 2:30
ends on June 26, 2016
EXTENDED to July 31, 2016
for tickets, call 773.404.7336
or visit American Blues Theater

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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