Chicago Theater Review: LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS (Mercury Theater Chicago)

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by Lawrence Bommer on March 11, 2019

in Theater-Chicago


You can see it as a modern parable of how the neglect that created Skid Row and its plethora of poverty brings its own revenge: A literally bloodthirsty plant gets sensationalized by rapacious promoters and proceeds to eat up the planet. The Bitch Goddess Success is here transmogrified into an apocalypse of vast vernal violence.

As I’ve written before about Little Shop of Horrors, its humble source — Roger Corman’s crude, 1960 black-and-white film starring a very young Jack Nicholson as a sociopathic biker dentist — never had a political agenda. But the 1982 musical, featuring Alan Menken’s loving pastiche of an enthralling Broadway/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.

Messages aside, this two-hour romp is ferocious fun, superbly shaped by L. Walter Stearns into a pile-driving cautionary tale of undeserved inequality and equally unearned prosperity. A weird amalgam of 1950s live-TV drama doomsday, jukebox nostalgia, and sci-fi, this strangely sweet-tempered show spins a very conditional success story: Seymour Krelborn, a nebbishy assistant working in an obscure and failing inner-city flower 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 sassy trio whose merry mockery points out assorted morals.

Seymour’s life changes forever during a solar eclipse when the mousy misfit discovers a carnivorous pod plant that is not, it seems, native. In a case of very ill-chosen homage, the doting dweeb fondly names it Audrey II: The outsized 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 consumes 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 size (and voice — hardly female like her name) turns the dilapidated shop into a commercial bonanza? Well, the title gives a clue.

Along the way we’re regaled with captivating choral rousers, aptly shaped by music director Eugene Dizon, “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 esteem, Dana Tretter’s sad sack Audrey is never more poignant than when inventorying her bad-taste suburban fantasies in “Somewhere That’s Green.” Christopher Kale Jones’s modest minion Seymour is winningly winsome as we watch this lovable loser turn unexpected lover, crooning “Suddenly, Seymour” to his smitten Audrey. Seymour is the proverbial mouse that roared and Audrey is a spunky survivor.

As the dentist you always dreaded, David Sajewich hurls himself into the intriguing role of a “paingiver” who manages to anesthetize himself as he tortures his patients. (Later, he also delightfully doubles as assorted media flunkies.) Tommy Novak makes much of the treacherous role of Mr. Mushnik, a surrogate dad to Seymour only when the schlub turns successful.

Finally, providing a kind of ghetto Greek chorus, Nicole Lambert, Adhana Reid, and Shantel Cribbs create an all-purpose backup for doo-wop delights like “Feed Me,” ”Da-Doo,” and “Suppertime.”

Apparent only for those who’ve seen it before is the eradication of the musical’s terrifying last look: here Audrey II does not grow exponentially: We never see the final grotesque tableau where all the characters who the plant consumed “return” as human flowers trapped in its all-consuming stems and branches.

Also, for some in today’s political climate, the characterization of Audrey II — a kind of revenge of the ghetto — may not have aged as well in 37 years. Superbly voiced by Jonah Winston, the serial-slaughtering, photosynthetic peril remains a personified urban nightmare modeled after soulful black singers like Little Richard and Barry White; one may see this monster as a minority bugaboo out of a modern-day minstrel show, especially given “her” victims are white. In the production’s favor, this nemesis suggests something much earthier now — the revenge of the underclass. A hilariously harmless musical just grew some teeth.

But nothing can spoil the fun of this shrub that eats showbiz, or detract from the show’s crack-brained caution against consumer crazes. The eight zanies of this zealous ensemble generate several tons of industrial-strength fun. They are as as cunningly caricatured as the ashcan realism of Alan Donahue’s deliberately disadvantaged set, Serena Sandoval’s period-perfect, Eisenhower-era costumes, and Christopher Chase Carter’s ferociously funky choreography. As the song says, “Don’t It Go to Show Ya Never Know.”

photos by Brett A. Beiner

Little Shop of Horrors
Mercury Theater Chicago, 3745 North Southport
Wed – Fri at 8; Sat at 5 & 8:30; Sun at 3 & 7:30 (check dates)
ends on April 28, 2019 EXTENDED to June 30, 2019
for tickets, call 773.325.1700 or visit Mercury Theater

for more shows, visit  Theatre in Chicago

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Stephanie April 1, 2019 at 5:17 pm

I saw LSoH last Thursday evening, and it was bloody brilliant. I am back home in Texas now, and in retrospect, this show was the best part of my trip. I smiled like a maniac the entire time, except when “Somewhere It’s Green” made me cry. Everyone was so talented, which I assumed would be the case in Chicago, but I was still amazed. Your theater is wildly better than the touring shows we get in Abilene!! Thank you so much for a perfect evening and flawless show. Oh, and the puppets were just cute A.F. 🙂


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