Little Shop of Horrors (Tantrum Theater – Dublin, OH)


Inspiration can sometimes come from the most innocuous material. I’m sure schlock film director Roger Corman never dreamed his 1960 grade-Z, low-budget, black and white wonder The Little Shop of Horrors would be transformed into a successful off-Broadway musical, be turned back into a film, and still be performed over thirty years later all across the country. Tantrum Theater, a new theatre company with ties to Ohio University in Athens as well as the City of Dublin, is now presenting Little Shop of Horrors as their premiere production in the Abbey Theater within the Dublin Community Recreation Center (I had to use the GPS on my phone to find it). This was my first experience at the facility; it looks state-of-the-art and proves to be a perfect fit for this irreverent dark comedy of a musical about love, fame, and a singing carnivorous plant. 

Photo: Daniel Rader – Jhardon Dishon Milton (Seymour)

Little Shop of Horrors premiered off-Broadway in 1982 and launched the careers of lyric and book writer Howard Ashman and composer Alan Menken, the team who went on to write the scores to Disney’s The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. The show ran for over five years, was adapted into a hit 1986 film, and finally premiered on Broadway in 2003. The action centers around Mushnik’s Skid Row Florists, a struggling shop in a slummy area where Seymour Krelborn, a rather nerdy guy, works alongside blonde bombshell Audrey. All of their fortunes change when Seymour discovers a “strange and unusual” plant that brings fame and fortune to him and the shop. The catch? The plant needs warm, fresh blood to thrive, and Seymour is faced with the ethical dilemma of finding the plant (whom he names Audrey II) dinner in the form of less than savory people that the plant reasons “deserve to die” anyway. The score is peppered with catchy songs like “Suddenly Seymour,” “Downtown,” and “Somewhere That’s Green,” and the story is written in a tongue-in-cheek style. Director Daniel C. Dennis guides this production while maintaining a light touch, possessing an obvious affection for the characters and the time period that shows in the joyful pep in many of the performances and the impressive use of color in the design concept.

Photo: Daniel Rader – (left to right) Sara Reinecke (Audrey), Colin Cardille (customer), Brandon Whitehead (Mushnik), and Jhardon Dishon Milton (Seymour)

Standouts in the cast are Jhardon Dishon Milton as Seymour, still playing the geek card but with a lot of heart; Sara Reinecke as Audrey, playing her as more than just a squeaky-voiced ditz; Brandon Whitehead as Mushnik, just right as the sneaky boss; Byron Glenn Willis sounds like he is having fun as the voice of Audrey II (though he sometimes has trouble finding his place in the music); Basil Harris is a riot as the evil dentist Orin, but he also plays a variety of other small roles (at times reminding me of Robin Williams with his timing and delivery); Kelsey Rodriguez sparkles in her solos as Ronnette, one of the three girls that comment on the action throughout the play; Jon Hoche brings personality to Audrey II as the lead puppeteer; and Colin Cardille has a memorable moment in a small part as a customer at the shop, his wide grin and impossibly genial manner fitting perfectly with the tone of the piece.

Photo: Daniel Rader – (left to right) Brandon Whitehead (Mushnik), Kelsey Rodriguez (Ronnette), Kristin Yates (Crystal), Sana Selemon (Chiffon), and Jhardon Dishon Milton (Seymour)

The most striking element of this production is the incredible set designed by C. David Russell, complete with a turntable to transition from being on the outside to the inside of Mushnik’s shop. There are signs and billboards overhead to denote the period, which is also aided by the limited black and white palette that extends to the costumes; bits of color begin to appear little by little as Audrey II grows, and the effect is most attractive and reminiscent of the use of color in the 1998 film Pleasantville. The band is conveniently housed on stage to the left within what appears to be a brownstone with open doors and windows.

Photo: Chuck Pennington III – Set Design: C. David Russell

With so much to recommend this piece, there are some notable deficiencies. There is a distinct lack of energy in some of the supporting players as they don’t always seem to be actively present and working to sell their parts. The tempo of the music is also much slower than I’m used to hearing with this score, though it seems to pick up the pace a bit after the intermission. Much of the choreography comes off as an afterthought and robotic as well. None of these problems keep the show from being diverting overall, but those familiar with the show will take note.

It’s funny how a familiar work of art (I’ve seen and listened to this show many times) can take on a different meaning depending on the context in which it is experienced. Just listen to the lyrics of “Don’t Feed the Plants” at the end of the show, with references to “unsuspecting jerks from Maine to California” being “sweet talked” into feeding the plants blood as they continue to grow. It isn’t hard for me to relate that to some of the rhetoric being spouted by politicians currently running for President, no matter which side of the aisle you may sit. The song now sounds to me like we shouldn’t give attention to anything that will ultimately be destructive, a lesson learned too late by the characters in the show (let’s hope we as a country are more fortunate come election time). Ah, but I digress…

Photo: Daniel Rader – (left to right) Kristin Yates (Crystal), Sana Selemon (Chiffon), Kelsey Rodriguez (Ronnette), and Jhardon Dishon Milton (Seymour)

Little Shop of Horrors is an auspicious debut production for Tantrum Theater. If the production values for this show are any indication, they are a serious new contender in the area. While I may take issue with a few of the performances and the pace of the music, this is a very enjoyable production overall. The set is top notch, the voices are all strong, and the humor all comes across. The group of people I attended with all left impressed and looking forward to Tantrum’s next production.

*** out of ****

Little Shop of Horrors continues through to June 25th in the Abbey Theater located within the Dublin Community Recreation Center at 5600 Post Road in Dublin (it’s a huge building with a large flag in front), and more information can be found at http://tantrumtheater.org/play/little-shop-of-horrors/

Aladdin (New Amsterdam Theatre – NYC)

Tonight I saw Aladdin with the original Broadway cast at the amazing New Amsterdam Theatre. I hadn’t been there since seeing The Lion King in 2002, and I guess I forgot just how mammoth and grand the place is. My seat was in the front of the balcony and still pricey, but it didn’t keep me from experiencing some of the worst theatre etiquette ever. More on that later.

Aladdin is a very mixed bag on Broadway. Three completely superfluous sidekicks have been added for Aladdin, and they add nothing to the show but time and bad puns. Several new songs have been added, all without merit, save for the one song originally written for the film, “Proud of Your Boy.” The play suffers from expanding it out to two and a half hours with intermission, with the break placed at a particularly awkward moment. They perform condensed versions of these animated features as stage shows at the Disney theme parks and they last no more than twenty-five minutes. I’m not suggesting they do that on Broadway, but Aladdin should’ve been no longer than a hundred minutes with no break. I noticed people looking at the song list in their Playbills early in the show anticipating the intermission, and there were admittedly long stretches where the action dragged.

The audience breathed a loud sigh of relief whenever James Monroe Iglehart appeared as Genie, even though not all of his comedic asides landed with the audience. The sets are bright and bold, and there is a great deal of technical wizardry at play here. The magic carpet ride is a real wonder, though the sequence is so dark it is difficult to see all that much. The magic carpet appears again at the end and is brightly lit but no less magical. The Cave of Wonders is similarly impressive, though the head of the tiger speaks without moving his mouth. It was just odd.

The score from the film is performed very well by a talented cast, and they seem to be having a good time (the leads just signed a new contract for another year), but the whole affair comes across as product more than theatre. Any opportunities for depth, such as more about Aladdin’s dead mother or any of his feelings in general, are glossed over in favor of some quips and banter that isn’t funny. Not that the audience didn’t laugh, mind you, they did, but in a kind of knee-jerk test-the-reflexes way. They can tell by the tone and delivery that it is a joke and, by God, they spent a lot of money for their ticket so they are gonna get some laughs in. Aside from some gasps at some set changes (they are mighty impressive) and special effects (one had dancers shoot out of the floor through holes that sure seemed dangerous to me – maybe they get hazard pay?), the audience’s reactions were as false as most everything on stage. At least that is how it felt to me.

Adam Jacobs looks and sounds great in the title role, and Courtney Reed is similarly well suited to play Jasmine. If there is next to no chemistry between them on stage, I blame the writing. Some lines are from the film, but an awful lot are cliched rehashes of stuff we’ve heard before. The palace guards prance around with their hairy chests exposed and wearing large head pieces, looking a lot like the Pharisees in the 1973 film of Jesus Christ Superstar by Norman Jewison. Clifton Davis as Sultan has the most thankless part, as any personality found in the character in the animated film has been surgically removed for the stage regurgitation.

I’m not quite sure what kind of casting call was put out to fill the part of Iago, a wisecracking parrot in the film reborn as a short, round human dressed like a flamboyant Atilla the Hun, but Don Darryl Rivera does what he can and sometimes surpasses the stale material he is given. Still, I can only imagine it is a hard part to cast as he physically is so different than what one usually sees on stage.

Overlong with gorgeous costumes and sets but also infused with high fructose corn syrup, Aladdin is neither a complete failure nor a complete success. I left feeling more disappointed than angry over the $100 I spent on my cramped balcony seat, a sentiment shared by a couple I overheard discussing the show on the street as we exited. “Why those guys,” the woman asked her companion, referring to Aladdin’s superfluous sidekicks, “and why so long?”

And now for an aside about theatre etiquette… Having recently been to Walt Disney World and seeing how the audience can pretty much record and photograph anything, including the live stage shows, I think the audience at the New Amsterdam needs to be reminded that this is Broadway, not Florida. Cell phones were out for taking pictures throughout, and the ushers were slow to stop people from doing so. The woman next to me (old enough to know better) in D105 in the balcony (you know who you are!) was actually recording video of the show at key moments! I turned to glare at her, but she completely ignored me, as if she was the only person in the world. An usher finally came over to call to her to stop, but they couldn’t get her attention being that we were in the middle of the steep balcony. I then pointed over to the usher trying to flag her and said, “Honey, you can’t do that.” “REALLY?!?!” was her response, and she put her phone away in a huff, and then she was back to spouting laughs at the show as if nothing had happened within fifteen seconds.

I alerted an understanding usher at intermission and was reseated in the mezzanine for the second half of the show in a free standing seat, but people were still taking pictures down there as well! I doubt many of the pictures even came out (the “A Whole New World” sequence was a trigger for the cellphone crowd), but what is it with the pictures at inappropriate moments? Do ushers need to be more vigilant, in which case they only respond after the offending picture or video has been taken and a disruption already caused, or does a threatening announcement need to be made at the start of the show and the start of the second act? What does it say about our culture when people of all ages can’t stop texting and taking pictures for two and a half hours during a show that they must’ve paid good money to see? Why bother to go to a show just to ignore it and annoy everyone around you?

**/****