Encore Michigan

Riverbank’s ‘Little Shop’ blooms with fun

Review March 11, 2019 Paula Bradley

MARINE CITY, Mich.–Are you in the mood for comedy? Satire? Tongue-in-cheek horror? Clever practical effects? How about fun, doo-wop style music? Maybe you’ve been yearning to see a giant, carnivorous plant with a smooth, deep voice that demands to be fed, and occasionally uses expletives.

It’s no joke—all of that can be had at the Riverbank Theatre in Marine City with Little Shop of Horrors, a musical by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, directed by Edmond Reynolds and music directed by Paul Decker (both previous Wilde Award nominees).

Based on a 1960 B movie, Little Shop of Horrors is the tale of a group of forlorn characters and set in a failing flower shop located on Skid Row.  The shop’s owner, Mr. Mushnik (Tony Amato) is about to close the business for good when one of the shop assistants, Audrey (Katy Kujala Cronin), makes a suggestion: put the latest unique plant cultivated by the shop’s other assistant, Seymour (Daniel DeRey), on display.  

The unusual plant immediately generates great interest, improves business and propels Seymour into the spotlight;  but Seymour knows that the plant—named Audrey II in a not so subtle nod  to his crush on the real Audrey—only thrives when he feeds it blood.  The problem is that Audrey II is literally bleeding Seymour to the point of anemia.  Where in the world will Seymour get enough blood to keep Audrey II fed and keep business increasing?

Seymour also wants to make the real Audrey notice him as more than just a friend, but she is dedicated to her boyfriend (Ty Evenson), even though he treats her very badly.  In fact, he is quite successful in a career that many believe requires actual torture skills—dentistry. Seymour faces a moral dilemma in deciding what to do about Audrey’s horrible boyfriend.

Mr. Mushnik is also feeling the squeeze when he suspects that the newly famous Seymour will leave his shop for greener pastures, taking Audrey II (and Audrey) with him. But Mushnik is also beginning to suspect something is amiss about the whole situation, and Seymour knows it.  When Audrey II reveals its true origins and goals to Seymour, he knows what he must do.

There is so much to enjoy about this production, starting with the high-spirited music, which is written and performed in the Doo-wop, R&B style of the 1950s and 1960s.  In fact, there is a sassy trio of characters named Chiffon, Crystal and Ronnette (Cheyenne Bolt, Mallorie Green and Cynthia Burton) who can only be thought of as the “doo-wop girls.” They provide a good portion of the musical punctuation for the scenes, dressed alternatingly in sweaters with bobby socks and sequined gowns with bouffant hairstyles, and always appearing together. Their rich and tightly blended vocal harmony is delightful and tremendously fun, especially when performed with the retro choreography, and will be one of the highlights that audiences will remember after the show.  

The doo-wop girls are not the only successes of the show.  DeRey as Seymour has calculated just the right formula for a voice that is whiny and broad enough to be clearly nerdy without being annoying.  His rapid-fire duets with Evenson (“Now [It’s Just the Gas]”) and with Cronin (“Call Back in the Morning”) are incredibly fun.  Evenson, a regular at The Riverbank, has hardly sounded better than he does here. Amato, another Riverbank regular and previous Wilde Award nominee, exhibits his acting chops with his facial expressions alone, and his vocal intonations add so much charm to this character.

Then there’s Audrey II.  For a character that is a puppet (voiced by Jeff Hinkle and Leon Anderson), it is rather menacing in a satirical way. Its voice is deep and smooth, almost jazzy, yet salty and bold.  It is nearly impossible not to love this blood craving plant, despite its actions and unapologetic goal of world domination.

The practical effects involving Audrey are done well, as are other effects, including real rain on stage. The band was pleasantly balanced and paced, and its placement above the stage was a good choice. Choreography (Xavier Bush) was both creative and entertaining.

And then . . . there’s the ending of the story.  Perhaps it is meant to be part of the satirical poke at B movies or the Faustian theme, but the way things end for Seymour seem to render his moral dilemma and his choices meaningless, which makes the ending fall a bit flat.  There may be no good directorial solution without going off script, however, and it is a small complaint for a production that is otherwise so lively, fun and entertaining.

Little Shop of Horrors is slightly creepy, in a sanitized and cartoonish way, with a sprinkling of rough language, so maybe it’s not for some of the young’uns if you are conservative; but it is also funny, and the music is just plain contagious and a joy to hear.  It is playing at The Riverbank through March 24, 2019.

Week of 9/16/2019

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