Don't Feed the Plant -- But Do See the "Little Shop of Horrors" at UW Madison

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That “mean green mother from outer space” is back — University Theatre has planted some mysterious musical theater seeds that have grown into a charming production of Little Shop of Horrors. The show runs this summer through July 29th, and will be remounted September 13 -23 as the first production of the department’s season. Directed and choreographed by visiting professor Shad Willingham, with music direction by Erin McConnell, it is an impressive take on a campy, horticultural horror story.

Based on a low budget movie from the 1960s by the same name, Little Shop was transformed into a musical in the early 1980s by composer Alan Menken and writer Howard Ashman, long before they were composing Disney classics “Under the Sea,” for A Little Mermaid or “Be Our Guest,” for Beauty and the Beast. It ran on Broadway for five years, before coming full circle—as a movie with Rick Moranis, Steve Martin and Bill Murray. But with a doo-wop trio of narrators to lead us through the strange story of a skid row flower shop that is overtaken by a man-eating plant — a deranged venus flytrap puppet that grows before the audience’s eyes — the show is much better, and more fun, live.

At the center of this crazy, vegetable-from-outer-space-tale are some very solid archetypes; Audrey, the pretty girl with low self esteem; Seymour, the loveable nerd; Mr. Mushnick, the crusty old shopkeeper with his thumb on the scale; and Orin, the abusive boyfriend (and dentist) who gets off on inflicting pain. These types are played to the hilt, keeping the musical comfortably in a cartoonish world.

Sam Wood makes an impressive Mushnick, shuffling around the shop with a slight stoop, seemingly carrying the weight of the world on his rounded shoulders. Yes, he took Seymour in as a child, but only for the free labor the kid could provide. Wood’s shifty eyes shift into high gear when he fears Seymour will take his miraculous plant on the road, and he has some nice vaudeville-esque moments sucking up to his charge in “Mushnick and Son.”

As the attractive but much abused Audrey, Caitlin Rowe employs the high pitched, whispery voice that’s typical of the ditzy blonde — but in this case, fortunately, the designers worked with her natural coloring and created a ditzy brunette. Her strong singing voice shines in the love ballad “Suddenly Seymour,” while she gives a quieter, more heartfelt performance fantasizing about a modest life outside the city in “Somewhere That’s Green.” The contrast between her un-affected singing voice and her cute character voice was pronounced, however, which made some of her numbers sound muddled.

Ben Jaeger was perfectly cast as the shy guy who has a thing for plants and a sincere distaste for violence, even against those who would hurt him and his love, Audrey. Jaeger plays Seymour as a real innocent; someone who wants to do the right thing, but ends up a victim of circumstance — and the voracious plant. What he lacks vocally, he makes up for in character.

And then there’s the ravenous and domineering plant, usually voiced by a man, which is sung by Ana Gonzalez — with great success. She puts a lot of attitude into all of her musically demanding numbers, and communicates plenty, although she doesn’t actually appear onstage. Brette Olpin has the harder-than-it-looks challenge of operating the enormous petals of the carnivorous plant, lip-synching with Gonzalez. This was only partly successful—the large puppet frequently overwhelmed its operator and chewed its way through songs. Over the long run of the show, this portrayal will undoubtedly become sharper.

Similarly, over the course of the run, the narrator trio will probably coalesce into a stronger unit. They’ve got their back-up girls’ choreography down pat, and their voices blend beautifully, but their blank expressions in choral numbers were disappointing.

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The award for making an entrance goes to Cobi Tappa, as the sneering bully and demented dentist. A vision in his white vinyl, suggestively-studded outfit, he exudes menace, from his white moon boots to his bleach blond hair. The creepy, colorless bad guy revels in his autobiographical song “Dentist!” and answers the question, what happened to that kid in grade school who liked to torture small animals? His death scene, strangled by a crazy contraption delivering an overdose of laughing gas, is genius.

The ambitious set, by Rob Wagner, uses a revolve to toggle back and forth between Mushnik’s barren and sparse flower shop, pre-Audrey II, and a dentist’s office that will induce oral hygiene nightmares. This center space is flanked by stark, red brick apartment buildings so tall that they seem to block out the sun. There is no greenery — and no hope — on this Skid Row. The apartments’ windows, alleys and doors do give director Willingham a lot of flexibility with entrances and exits, with characters popping up unexpectedly.

Costume designer Jim Greco clearly had fun creating coordinated skirt/sweater/scarf ensembles for the singing trio, complete with bobby socks, saddle shoes and fluffy crinolines. The narrators spend most of the show in these girl-next-door outfits, but do make an entrance in sparkly, floor-length gowns towards the end of the show that are also stunning. Greco also outdoes himself with the back-from-the-dead foliage costumes for the main characters in the final number.

As the company sings in the finale, “Don’t Feed the Plants,” or this nightmare could happen to you.