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Gabi Epstein as Audrey and André Morin as Seymour Krelborn in Little Shop of Horrors.

Chris Young/Handout

  • Title: Little Shop of Horrors
  • Book and lyrics by: Howard Ashman
  • Music by: Alan Menken
  • Director: Donna Feore
  • Actors: André Morin, Gabi Epstein, Dan Chameroy
  • Company: Stratford Festival
  • Venue: Avon Theatre
  • City: Stratford, Ont.
  • Year: Continues to November 2, 2019

rating

It’s a case of diminishing Horrors at the Stratford Festival.

Last season, the august repertory theatre festival let its hair down with a fantastically crass production of The Rocky Horror Show directed by Donna Feore, a hit that extended all the way into December.

It may have made sense from a certain point of view (the box-office window) to follow that up with Little Shop of Horrors, another sci-fi, B-movie-inspired musical with a retro score, and to hand it and the Avon Theatre over to Feore again.

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But lightning hasn’t struck twice. This similarly second-tier musical is misdirected, losing what little charm it ever had by being blown out of proportion – and reinforcing the impression that Stratford is a not-for-profit where musicals are not curated or considered with the same care as the classics.

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Little Shop of Horrors was the 1982 off-Broadway breakthrough for lyricist Howard Ashman and composer Alan Menken, who went on to write many of the greatest “show tunes” of the 1980s and ′90s for animated Disney films such as The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin.

With a score in the style of early 1960s doo-wop and rockabilly, Little Shop tells the story of nerdy Seymour Krelborn (André Morin), an orphan raised on “skid row” who works at a flower shop owned by Mr. Mushnik (Steve Ross).

Seymour is in love with his co-worker Audrey (Gabi Epstein), but has low self-esteem and doesn’t think he has anything to offer her or the world. That all changes, however, when he happens upon a “very strange and unusual” flytrap in a Chinese market during a solar eclipse.

Suddenly, Seymour finds fame and fortune and female companionship when the plant he names Audrey II turns into a pop-cultural phenomenon.

The only problem: Audrey II needs human blood to survive, and, as the plant grows, Seymour finds it is no longer satisfied with the few drops he can squeeze from his fingertips.

Unlike the truly weird and out-there Rocky Horror Show, Little Shop follows a fairly traditional musical-theatre structure to tell a tale inspired by Faustian legend. It has characters and a plot that have to be taken at least somewhat seriously; it’s not a show that you heckle.

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Feore treats it as Rocky Horror redux, however – as a complete lark, full of metatheatrical gags and knowing looks shot out at the audience.

As a result, the story suffers. Morin looks the part as Seymour and sings the heck out of it, but he never really connects with the audience, in either a creepy or comedic way. As his exploitative employer Mr. Mushnik, Ross mainly highlights his character’s Jewishness, but it’s unclear what makes that funny – or, for that matter, why there is a musical nod to Fiddler on the Roof inserted into one of his songs.

The only actor who really earns a place in the audience’s hearts is Epstein, who manages to make the abused and vulnerable Audrey instantly lovable with her earnest, yearning delivery of the show’s semi-satirical ode to the suburbs, Somewhere That’s Green. But even Epstein is directed to treat the macabre climax of her character arc as a can-you-believe-it joke.

Many of Little Shop’s songs are sung by a chorus of African-American “street urchins” played by Camille Eanga-Selenge, Starr Domingue and Vanessa Sears here. While they have excellent voices and harmonize beautifully, it’s hard to understand who they are or what they are meant to represent. The show is frequently staged like a singing competition, with showing off coming first and meaning an afterthought.

Perhaps the root problem is that Feore, according to her program note, believes Little Shop is inherently “subversive." That’s a misreading: In contrast to the transgressive (at least for its time) Rocky Horror Show, Little Shop has always been a heteronormative musical that, like most movies in the monster genre, centres on the fear of the Other.

From its snottily sophomoric depiction of urban poverty, to Audrey’s dream of moving to the suburbs where she can “cook like Betty Crocker / and look like Donna Reed,” the musical seems to, consciously or not, channel many of the anxieties that led to “white flight” from American inner cities in the 1960s, when the show is set.

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The killer plant, Audrey II (voiced by Matthew G. Brown here), is coded as an African-American man in its R&B singing style and jive-talking dialogue – and all of the victims it devours from its downtown lair are white (in this production, at least).

There’s plenty in the show that could use some subversion. But the lack of any serious examination of the material is clear from the get-go, when a homeless addict stumbles and collapses in a heap in a mean-spirited comic bit. (What opioid crisis?)

Hope for genuine laughter comes with the eventual arrival onstage of Dan Chameroy, whose Dr. Frank-N-Furter stole the show last year.

But as Audrey’s sadistic boyfriend, a dentist named Orin, he does too much with too little material. He brings an Elvis impersonation, prop comedy and much frenetic funny business to the stage but forgets to create a character underneath it all.

In the second act, Chameroy returns to rotate through several roles in quick succession, disrobing as he runs off the stage to change into his next costume – the moment where it becomes completely clear that he’s playing himself and that Feore isn’t mounting Little Shop so much as a pantomime version of it.

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