Without “Little Shop of Horrors,” there would have been no “Beauty and the Beast,” no “Little Mermaid” and maybe even no “Frozen.” That’s because this satirical 1982 off-Broadway musical about a cannibalistic plant named Audrey II is what introduced its creators, Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman, to Disney.
The mighty mouse then hired the duo to reinvigorate its then-languishing animated franchise by turning those movies into Broadway-style musicals. Disney ran with that next to Julie Taymor (”Lion King”), Elsa and all the way to the bank in the years that followed. Listen closely to “Part of Your World” in “Little Mermaid,” and you’ll hear essentially a revision of “Somewhere That’s Green” from “Little Shop.”
I’d hardly be alone in saying that “Little Shop of Horrors,” which opened Friday night at the Paramount Theatre in Aurora, is one of my favorite musicals. It’s witty, sweet, strikingly original and filled with the very best kind of theatrical music, a memorial to the whopping talent that was Ashman, who died from AIDS in 1991 at just 40 years old.
Paramount’s “Little Shop” is not so little. It’s more like Costco compared to your local florist, a huge production filled with a blowout reconstruction of Skid Row, including a re-creation of Mushnik’s shop that keeps moving back and forth on the stage with such regularity, the plant Audrey II must have been getting dizzy. Add in a sing-it-to-the-hilt cast with huge voices and enough stage business to fill anyone’s backyard and you’ve got a supersized “Little Shop.”
That’s both a strength — rarely will you have heard “Somewhere That’s Green” sung with the emotional force that the fine singer Teressa LaGamba brings to the number — and a weakness. “Little Shop” has quirky songs, really, more than power ballads and it doesn’t need big physical changes coming at you every five minutes. It’s a sardonic piece, a satire of human greed, for sure, but not a show that otherwise makes a lot of moral judgments, beyond “don’t feed the plant,” anyway.
That off-Broadway comedic sensibility, if you will, is what is missing from director Landree Fleming’s production, although I’ll acknowledge this is very much a question of taste. Fleming and her choreographers (Michael George and Mariah Morris) have very much leaned into the show’s gothic qualities: The ensemble looks and acts at times like zombies at a Halloween Fright Fest, where most productions of this show just treat them like regular denizens of Skid Row, bemused by all they see and hear.
Here, the famed trio of Chiffon, Crystal and Ronnette (played by Lydia Burke, Marta Bady and Tickwanya Jones, respectively) sing their faces off, which is whole lot of fun to hear, but you don’t easily see them as droll high schoolers on the stoop. Even the plant struggles to compete with the size of the environment and the scale of the performances: it’s a cool Audrey II, as voiced by Je’Shaun Jackson, the puppet by Adam Fane, but it has a lot of competition here for focus in a production where a bit too much is right on the nose.
For my tastes, anyway. The stage sure is packed with talent. Gene Weygandt is Mushnik and Jack Ball, a name to watch, makes for a terrific Seymour. Ball best catches the comic style of the material, treating the gags with a glancing blow and delivering the kind of sweet performance that crucially makes you feel like Audrey is in good hands. Alas, none of the dentist stuff really lands; it’s hard to pull off.
The Paramount is a big theater and some of these choices make sense for this show in so large a space. Fleming, a gifted performer, is a relatively new director: she clearly was brimming with staging ideas here and casting a passionate ensemble who clearly care about the piece. But when you’ve got material of this quality, it needs less extra food than you think; a few drops of blood and it can grow on an audience all by itself.
Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.
Review: “Little Shop of Horrors” (2.5 stars)
When: Through Oct. 15
Where: Paramount Theatre, 23 E. Galena Blvd., Aurora
Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes
Tickets: $38-$79 at 630-896-6666 and paramountaurora.com
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