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Sunday, February 24, 2013

Derby Dinner Pulls Off “Great Production of A Great Play”


Ricky Cona as Seymour and Jillian Prefach as Audrey
in Little Shop of Horrors. Photo - Derby Dinner Playhouse.

Little Shop of Horrors

Book and Lyrics by Howard Ashman
Music by Alan Menken
Based on the Film by Roger Corman and Screenplay by Charles Griffith
Directed by Lee Buckholz

Reviewed by Craig Nolan Highley

Entire contents are copyright © 2013, Craig Nolan Highley. All rights reserved.

When cult director Roger Corman threw together a quick (shot in two days!) and cheap exploitation film called The Little Shop of Horrors way back in 1960, he could never have anticipated the cultural phenomenon he’d created. Not only did the film launch the career of Jack Nicholson, but this Faust-in-a-florist-shop story went on to inspire one of the most successful off-Broadway musicals of all time.

Premiering at the WPA theater in 1982, Little Shop of Horrors was the first major success for songwriting team Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, who later went on to rescue Disney’s animated film division with their work on The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin. The show also inspired the much loved film version in 1986, which featured Rick Moranis and Steve Martin.

But none of that quite takes away from the sheer brilliance of the stage show. Mixing a Motown-flavored score with utterly brilliant (and sometimes a bit gruesome) black comedy, it’s easy to see why this show has endured. It even made its way to Broadway in 2003 (a feat accomplished by very few long-closed off-Broadway productions).  It’s a personal favorite of mine, so I was thrilled to get to see it again with a new staging at Derby Dinner Playhouse.

The show is set around and about a struggling florist shop in an urban skid row neighborhood, complete with homeless people shuffling around and sleeping on the sidewalk.  Here we meet sad, shy and socially awkward Seymour (Ricky Cona) as he longs for a better life. He also pines for his beautiful co-worker Audrey (Jillian Prefach), another lost soul dreaming of getting out of skid row. Their employer, Mr. Mushnik (Kevin Crain), the owner of the failing shop, is just about at his wits’ end.

Everything changes when Seymour discovers a new breed of flytrap, which he affectionately names Audrey II. When he puts it in the store window, business picks up. Unfortunately, Audrey II needs blood to survive, which Seymour reluctantly provides from his own fingers. Eventually, though, the bloodthirsty plant grows to an enormous size with an appetite to match.

Performances in the show are almost unanimously on the money. It took a while to get used to Cona’s nasally voiced characterization of Seymour, but he was completely endearing in the role. Prefach displays an amazing singing voice as Audrey and is quite lovely to look at too. It does seem she’s copying Ellen Greene’s portrayal from the 1986 film, but then again, I’m not sure there is really any other way the character can be played.

Also worth noting are Tymika Prince, Illy Kirven and Tamika Skaggs as Crystal, Ronette and Chiffon. They are three dropout street urchins who perform as the show’s Greek Chorus, giving constant comment on the action through their Supremes-inspired musical numbers.  All three are in fine voice and are crucial to keeping the show’s momentum building.

But the real stars of the evening have to be Rendell Debose as Audrey II’s speaking and singing voice, and Lem Jackson as the puppeteer who brings the monster to life. The two work together to create an amazing piece of visual theater that just has to be seen and heard to believe.  I also must give a shout out to The Hastey Pudding Puppet Company who created the amazing puppet creations. They are quite amazing.

The only real problem I had with the production was the miscasting of Matthew Bryan Feld as Audrey’s abusive dentist boyfriend, a character whose fate is a pivotal turning point in the storyline. The character is supposed to be a lovable villain, and while Feld appears to be a capable actor and has a great singing voice, he just doesn’t create any menace in the role. Rather he comes off as kind of a nice guy with a friendly demeanor; this may have been a conscious choice by both actor and director, but it really doesn’t work in the context of the show.

That’s a minor complaint, however, as overall this is one of the best productions I have ever seen at Derby Dinner – hands down. Director Lee Buckholz keeps his cast energized throughout, and the stage pictures he has created are nothing short of brilliant. His scenic design makes amazing use of the Playhouse’s inherent limitations, nicely complimented by Ron Breedlove’s lighting. I was skeptical whether this show could be done at Derby Dinner, but I’m delighted to say they have pulled it off in spades!

I will offer one note of caution:  If you are only familiar with the show from the 1986 film version, be warned that the show doesn’t have the movie’s bright and happy ending. I heard more than one comment from other audience members that they were shocked by the show’s rather bleak resolution. All I will say on that is the show’s original ending is much more true to the story than the one in the film version.

But if you are a fan of the show, or either of the films, or just want to see something really unusual in live theater, you can do much worse than Derby Dinner’s Little Shop of Horrors. It’s a great performance of a great show that might even warrant repeated viewings!

Starring  Matthew Brennan, Megan Bliss, Kyle Braun, Ricky Cona, Kevin Crain, Rendell Debose, Matthew Bryan Feld, Lem Jackson, Illy Kirven, Jillian Prefach, Tymika Prince and Tamika Skaggs.

Little Shop of Horrors

February 19-March 30, 2013

Derby Dinner Playhouse
525 Marriott Drive
Clarksville, IN
812-288-8281

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