Little Shop of Horrors, performed by the Tred Avon Players, is now playing at Oxford Community Center. Based on an unabashedly schlocky black-and-white horror film by the legendary Roger Corman, the musical takes us to the Skid Row Florist shop, where a low-paid assistant makes a strange new plant flourish – with unexpected results.
Directed by Marcia Gilliam, the Tred Avon production does a first-class job with the show’s musical score, which draws heavily on the sound and ambiance of 1950s’ rock ‘n’ roll. With a strong cast and toe-tapping music, Gilliam and the TAP gang have put on a delightful show, well worth a trip to Oxford for playgoers all across the Shore.
The Corman film, which was produced on a budget of $28,000 in 1960, mixed the story of a man-eating plant with a generous helping of dark comedy and satire. With a cast of B-film stalwarts including Jonathan Haze, Jackie Joseph, and Mel Welles – and a very minor part by Jack Nicholson – the film was reportedly shot in only two days, using a left-over set from Corman’s previous horror-comedy, “A Bucket of Blood.” It gradually gained a cult following, with late-night TV showings helping to build its popularity.
Little Shop of Horrors, the musical, was created in 1982 by composer Alan Menken and script-writer Howard Ashman. Originally an off-off-Broadway production, it moved to the Orpheum Theater where it ran for five years, ending up as the highest-grossing off-Broadway musical to date. However, because it did not appear on Broadway, it was ineligible for the Tony Awards. It finally appeared on Broadway in 2003, in a million-dollar production that ran for 372 regular performances. The musical has also been made into a film in its own right, directed by Frank Oz (of “Muppet Show” fame) in 1986. Bill Murray and Steve Martin play minor roles in the film.
The plot, which is somewhat changed from the Corman film, introduces the Skid Row Florist shop, a failing business in the worst part of town. Mr. Mushnik, the shop’s owner, is ready to close his doors for good when Seymour, his geeky assistant, says he has an interesting new plant that might attract customers. Mushnik is skeptical, but no sooner does Seymour put the plant by the window than a customer comes in and spends $100 on a bouquet of roses.
Mushnik decides the business isn’t washed up after all, and with the strange plant in the window, the shop takes off. Seymour names the plant Audrey Two, after the shop’s other employee, for whom he has a secret crush. But there’s a downside to everything, as Seymour learns when he accidentally spills a few drops of blood from a fresh cut into Audrey Two’s “mouth.” The plant has a craving for food – human flesh and blood, to be exact – and that discovery propels the rest of the plot. Seymour must keep the plant, which has grown to enormous size, fed – and it will only accept fresh food.
We won’t give away all the twists and turns – which range from gruesome to outright comic. The play has an infectious momentum, helped along by a likable set of songs that draw on the music of the era in which it’s set. The production also has a fair amount of fun with the social milieu of the late ‘50s, as in the song “Someplace That’s Green,” where Seymour and Audrey pine for a suburban lifestyle straight out of the TV sitcoms of the day.
The TAP production’s strong cast presents Mike Sousa as Seymour, the florist’s assistant. Sousa, who has several other credits at TAP, does a good job of portraying the earnest protagonist as well as a good job with the musical numbers. A nice performance in the key role.
Shelby Swann plays Audrey, Seymour’s love interest, and she brings a strong singing voice to the role, along with a nice New York accent to bring out the character. Most of her work at TAP has been backstage, but judging by her performance here, she should be encouraged to take more onstage roles.
The trio of Crystal, Chiffon, and Ronette, played by Rachel Elaina, Beth Anne Langrell, and Erinne Lewis, respectively, are near the heart of the play. The trio’s names play on the names of popular “girl groups” of the early ‘60s, and that’s a good hint of the nature of their musical contribution. All have fabulous voices and they authentically re-create the music and mood of the ’60s. But in addition to delivering some of the most infectious tunes in the show, they act as a kind of Greek chorus, commenting on the action and delivering narrative hooks as necessary. Lewis also created the choreography for the show – a good complement to the overall effect. They have all the right moves as they shimmy and shake, stepping in time to the music – just like all the popular girl groups of the ’60s. And their costumes are perfect. They may live on Skid Row but they are always in style.
Ricky Vitanovec gets the role of the play’s villain, dentist Orin Scrivello – Audrey’s sadistic boyfriend. He makes the most of the role, all but chewing on the scenery – a nice piece of casting. He is a natural comic and his “death by laughing gas” scene is hilarious. Viranoves also plays several other small roles including the various agents who try to get Seymour to sign contracts with them. Vitanovec, who has appeared in a number of roles in Shore theaters, teaches theater at Easton High School.
Bill Gross, who played the role of Oscar Madison in TAP’s The Odd Couple last summer, takes the role of Mr. Mushnik, the gruff owner of the flower shop. He gives a polish to the likeable curmudgeon who gleefully collects the money as Audrey Two brings in the customers.
Kathy Jones, in heavy makeup and wearing a crown of leaves, voices Audrey Two, the cannibalistic plant, with an appropriately sinister air. An excellent job by one of the regulars at Church Hill and the Garfield. Her maniacal laughter at the climax of the play is awesome — and chill-inducing
The band for the show is led by pianist Ellen Barry Grunden, who does a great job of recapturing the doo-wop and ‘50s rock feel of the musical numbers. Ray Remesch on guitar and Jon Jacobs on bass add to the mix.
Costumes – including the deliciously period-perfect matching outfits of the trio – are by that fabulous costumer Barbi Bedell. Gilliam and Tom Lemm share the credit for puppet design and construction, and the set was designed by Lawrie Jessup and constructed with help from Lemm.
As already noted, this is a thoroughly enjoyable performance with great music and great acting – kudos to Gilliam and everyone involved.
Little Shop of Horrors runs through August 26, with performances at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday, and at 2 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $20 for adults and $10 for students. Oxford Community Center is at 200 Oxford Road, Oxford, MD. If you come to one of the Sunday matinees, you’ll have the opportunity to take part in the “talk-back” with the actors after the show, meet all four of the Audrey Two plant puppets and their puppeteers, and get a backstage tour.
For reservations or other information, call 410-266-0061 or visit the TAP website.
Photo Gallery by Jane Jewell (with the help of that amazing camera, the iPhone 5)