Black comedy often presents a challenge for directors and performers: if you go too subtle with it no one will laugh, but if you’re too heavy handed with it the audience will feel you’re shoving it down their throats. Fortunately with Theatre Kraken’s Little Shop of Horrors, director Don Fex and the performers get the balance just right simply by being honest with the material.
Little Shop, for those of you who live on the moon, is a rock musical based on the 1960 film of the same name, which was infamously filmed in 2 days on a shoestring budget. The musical version debuted Off-Off-Broadway in 1982, was adapted back into a film in 1986, and was revived on Broadway in 2003. Besides these “official” incarnations, Little Shop has spent decades as the darling of school and local theatre productions, due in no small part to its minimal cast size and offbeat sense of humour.
The story follows Seymour Krelborn, a geeky nobody working in a failing florist’s shop in the worst part of town, who discovers a mysterious and interesting new plant. In an effort to save the shop and impress his money-hungry boss Mr. Mushnik and co-worker/love interest Audrey, Seymour displays the plant (which he calls Audrey II) to the public, but the new-found success comes with a price when Seymour discovers that Audrey II only eats blood.
I have to come clean: in my own high school production of Little Shop I played Seymour, and I know firsthand what can happen when the production team doesn’t fully understand how to approach the tongue-in-cheek humour that pervades this script. Several jokes are made at the expense of the characters’ socioeconomic status (Audrey’s dream is to be a suburban housewife, Seymour thinks that Howard Johnson’s is a fancy restaurant), but these jokes are also heartbreaking revelations that reveal how shaped these characters are by their conditions (Audrey is trapped in an abusive relationship and her housewife fantasy is a coping mechanism, and Seymour is an orphan/survivor of child labour who literally lives in the shop). Little Shop follows the basic storyline of tragedy to a T, but the rest of the show is so over-the-top ridiculous (a jive-talking, singing plant that eats people, for example) that it becomes a comedy. In other words, Howard Ashman and Alan Menken wrote a musical so bad it came all the way back around to ‘excellent’, and they did so intentionally. My high school drama teacher didn’t understand this, but Don Fex does.
Theatre Kraken’s production has a strong cast to back up the solid direction: Kodi Cannon’s Seymour is an awkward, clueless sweetheart, Andréa Black’s Audrey has a beautifully fragile honesty, and both have excellent voices. Other standouts include Allison Harris as street urchin/Greek chorus member Crystal, Chris Lucas as the singing voice of Audrey II, and Nicholas Dave Amott as unhinged dentist Orin Scrivello (particularly his movements: Orin is supposed to a creep, but Amott’s weirdly sensual physicality makes the character as fascinating as he is disturbing).
The technical side of this production is defined by an unusual but understandable choice: the set and costumes are entirely in monochrome à la a black-and-white movie, with the only element of colour coming from the series of green-and-purple puppets that represent Audrey II as the plant grows from tiny to monstrous. On a conceptual level this makes perfect sense: the original film was in black-and-white, as were many of the classic ‘50s B-movies whose posters are scattered around the Gladstone’s lobby as decoration, and the over-the-top music that plays around the theatre before curtain and during intermission heightens the feeling that you’re watching a live B-movie on stage.
The monochrome itself isn’t much to look at, which suggests more attention placed on the actors. For most of the show this doesn’t pose as a problem, except for perhaps during the “Closed for Renovation” musical number where the set is supposed to be transformed from a hole-in-the-wall stand to a respectable-looking storefront. Not much transforming happens (even the prop flowers are spray-painted silver and black, which makes the transition from a store stocked with dead, rotting flowers into actually nice ones rather underwhelming). The costumes are similarly in monochrome (except for the red on Orin’s bleeding molar t-shirt, for some reason), and though this show is ostensibly set sometime in the ‘50s or early ‘60s the costumes are a blend of modern and period, though presumably this is more a practical choice than an artistic one.
As often seems to happen with musicals at the Gladstone, sound levels are something of an issue at times. I remain unconvinced that microphones are necessary in a space the size of the Gladstone, particularly as the main issues with the sound in this production seem to involve turning the microphones on or off, as well as backing tracks. Despite these technical issues, the live band breezes through Alan Menken’s score with little trouble.
Theatre Kraken’s Little Shop of Horrors is a delightful musical black comedy with a strong cast and director. Having some experience with this show is basically a prerequisite for musical theatre lovers and drama kids, so get yourself out there and remember: don’t feed the plants.
Little Shop of Horrors
Presented by Theatre Kraken
Music by Alan Menken
Book and Lyrics by Howard Ashman
Directed by Don Fex
Musical Direction by Chris Lucas
Choreography by Brenda Solman
Stage Managed by Kat Wong
Assistant Stage Managers: Christine Mathieu, Katrina Soroka
Costume Design by Amanda Logan
Hair Design by Janice Fitzsimmons
Set Design by Grace Solman
Lighting Design by John Solman
Sound Design by Jason Sonier
Puppet Design by Grace Solman
Props Design by Lydia Talajic
Graphic Design by Emm Legault
Program by Brenda Solman
Band: Mark Allen, Kenny Hayes, Corey Thomas, John Corkett, Trevor Curtis
Starring (in alphabetical order): Nicholas Dave Amott, Andréa Black, Kodi Cannon, Lawrence Evenchick, Andrew Galligan, Allison Harris, Axandre Lemours, Chris Lucas, Victoria Luloff, Rachel Rumstein, Brenda Solman, Zoe Towne