“Little Shop of Horrors” has sprouted again at Florida Studio Theatre. Howard Ashman and Alan Menken planted the seeds of a very funny musical in their 1982 adaptation of Roger Corman’s 1960 film. Its story is as old as time.
Boy meets carnivorous plant from outer space. Boy makes Faustian deal with alien plant to impress girl. Boy feeds alien plant with unpleasant characters. Alien plant reneges on deal. Alien plant eats boy. Alien plant eats girl. Alien plants take over the world.
Seymour (Sam Seferian) is the musical’s protagonist. He’s a nebbish working in a low-rent flower shop in Skid Row in an unnamed city in the early 1960s. That neighborhood is a Manichean pit of poverty straight out of a Roald Dahl story (“Seymour and the Pit of Poverty,” maybe). Seymour just wants to climb out of that pit. Sure, he wants to get the girl. (He’s secretly in love with Audrey, the little shop’s other assistant.)
But he thinks he needs financial success to win her. Fat chance. His boss, Mr. Mushnik (Joel Blum), is ready to close up his failing flower shop. When Seymour finds a weird plant after a total eclipse of the sun, he displays the plant in the shop window to attract customers.
Mr. Mushnik says it’ll never work. It works! Business grows. The plant grows too — and keeps demanding Seymour’s blood with its signature “Feed me.”
Seymour names the plant “Audrey II” in his inamorata’s honor. And that’s when the Faustian bargain kicks in. Audrey II wants fresh human meat, not just blood. She promises Seymour fame and fortune in return. Seymour reluctantly complies — first feeding it Audrey’s abusive boyfriend (a sadistic dentist who gets off on inflicting pain) and then his former boss.
As noted, the plant welches on the deal. An alien invasion ensues. Moral of the story? Don’t feed the plants.
Director Sean Daniels has a hoot with this material. It’s a tightly written show, with great pseudo-1960s songs and snappy gags and reversals. Ashman and Menken’s comic timing is brilliant. If you’ve got an ear for the music, you can make the audience howl. Daniels does.
The cast also has a blast.
Seferian’s Seymour has a good heart — and a good brain to match. His character’s a nerd, but not a naïf. He’s put upon and put down. He gets no respect — and respect is what he deserves. Sefarian’s character knows it.
Thanks to that ambition, Audrey II plants the seeds of temptation in Seymour’s mind. Poor kid. Audrey (Samantha Duval), the original human female, is another star who doesn’t get to shine. Her character has a comic ingénue quality — a budding Goldie Hawn, maybe.
But Audrey’s viciously sadistic boyfriend has slapped her around and kicked her self-image down to zero. John Gregorio plays that dastardly dentist to comic perfection. Long before “Blue Velvet,” his character proved the pitfalls of nitrous oxide abuse. (Just say no to N2O, kids.)
Blum’s Mushnik is an exploiter wearing a savior’s mask. Seymour was an orphan. Mushnik rescued the kid at age 12 to a life of child labor and constant insults. (Seymour should be grateful!)
Audrey II is, of course, the scene-stealing star of the show. If Richard III came back as a man-eating plant, he’d resemble Derrick Cobey’s voice characterization. His Audrey II is alternately seductive and intimidating — and always manipulative. The voice he gives her is a cross between Wolfman Jack and the Big Bopper.
Puppeteer David Gaztambide matches the plant’s motion to Cobey’s speech — either serpentine or puppy-like, as needed. If you’re wondering where this nutty narrative’s going, no worries. Katelyn Bowman, Jameelah Leaundra and Desireé Tolodziecki explain all. Their trio fulfills the function of a Greek chorus. But they do it in the Supremes-style of a 1960s girl group, and that’s far more entertaining.
These characters come to life (at least briefly) in Isabel and Moriah Curley-Clay’s shabby (and not very chic) flower shop. Harry Nadal’s early ’60s costumes suit the musical’s marginalized inhabitants. (These cats ain’t hip, man. You can tell.) Darren Server’s music direction evokes the pre-Beatles invasion jukebox vibe of the Menken’s tunes. Choreographer Jim Weaver’s dance styles flow with the songs’ bop-she-bop groove.
It all adds up to a hilarious show.
But this weird musical comedy has a weirdly sad subtext. It’s not immediately obvious.
“Little Shop of Horrors” fits the template of “Blazing Saddles.” Its situation and characters parody the tropes of a certain genre. (B-movie sci-fi or Westerns, respectively.) Within those parodic parameters, the musical takes its story seriously and doesn’t sneer at its protagonist. That raises happy expectations.
Audrey II’s first victims are cartoon bullies who deserve to be plant food. You don’t shed a tear when they’re digested. But Seymour and Audrey are sympathetic characters. While they’re drawn from type (the insecure nerd; the million dollar baby in a five-and-ten-cent lyrics), they’re sympathetic, three-dimensional characters. They deserve to live happily ever after.
The musical’s ending blindsided me when I first saw it. (At FST in 1987, actually). I’ve seen this show a few times since. Knowing what’ll happen to these characters changes the way I see this musical. A Faustian bargain is no bargain. Likeable or not, Seymour’s doomed. Along with the rest of Planet Earth.
Marty Fugate is a writer, cartoonist and voiceover actor whose passions include art, architecture, performance, film, literature, politics and technology. As a freelance writer, he contributes to a variety of area publications, including the Observer, Sarasota Magazine and The Herald Tribune. His fiction includes sketch comedy, short stories and screenplays. “Cosmic Debris,” his latest anthology of short stories, is available on Amazon.