Theatergoers in search of deep meaning and profound messages may want to skip director Phillip Duggin’s latest Masquerade Theatre offering, “The Little Shop of Horrors.” But for those who want to escape Houston’s summer heat and just enjoy a light and frothy bit of musical nonsense, hurry on down to Zilkha Hall at the Hobby Center. This cheerful blend of pleasant tunes and comedy from Howard Ashman (book & lyrics) and Alan Menken (music) may be just what you are looking for.
Throughout the performance, a high-energy, 50’s-style, girl-group quartet (Libby Evans, Kristin Hanka, Kristina Sullivan, and Stephanie Bradow) punctuates the lightweight plot with sweet harmonies, colorful costume changes, (Beth Hempen), and cute choreography (Miss Hanka). The show tells the story of young Seymour (Braden Hunt), assistant to local florist, Mr. Mushnik (David Higginbotham). Seymour has acquired an unusual plant that is literally, bloodthirsty. He names it Audrey II, showing his affection for his co-worker, Audrey. But, alas, Audrey already has a boyfriend, the hilariously sadistic dentist, Dr. Orin Scrivello (Luther Chakurian in an uproarious beehive wig). The full company’s opening number, “Skid Row,” was exquisitely merry, and as our smoothly harmonizing quartet bounced about in ponytails, brightly colored blouses, and peddle-pusher pants, I thought about how lucky I am to have employment as a critic. Then, when shapely Laura Gray arrives on the scene in the lead role of Audrey, she redefines the classic ditzy blonde. From her flirtatious walk and squeaky voice, to her amusing mannerisms and body language, she has it all. If she doesn’t win the role of Adelaide in Masquerade’s forthcoming “Guys & Dolls,” (slated for next November), I will be very surprised.
Mr. Hunt displays his very pleasing voice as he serenades the plant with “Grow for Me.” And grow it does, becoming a local sensation. The enormous and animated plant (voice: Alison Sumrall, manipulation: Russell Freeman) really becomes the highlight of Higginbotham’s otherwise simple set design, complemented with city skyline projections from lighting designer, Mr. Freeman. The cast offers an exciting “Don’t It Go to Show Ya Never Know.” This number, and others, would be compromised by a four-piece pit orchestra that was frequently too loud, distracting from both lyrics and dialogue. The imbalance could probably be corrected by simply capping the orchestra pit to tamp down the sound.
That did not deter Miss Gray from stealing the show with the poignant and lovely, “Somewhere That’s Green,” as she reveals Audrey’s longing to escape Skid Row and head for a better life in the suburbs. Meanwhile, Seymour is fast becoming a celebrity as his plant grows to enormity. The appealing Mr. Hunt gives us a simple yet endearing Seymour who, with nerdy innocence, has “…never finished high school or eaten a fancy dinner at Howard Johnson’s.” On the other hand, while singing the amusing song, “Dentist,” Orin is as brash as he is sadistic. But Audrey is too frightened to end the relationship.
Mushnik sees that Seymour’s popularity is a boon for business and adopts him in the merry and rhythmic “Mushnik & Son,” that features a tango-like dance and duet. But Act One closed with two songs that continued the sound problems previously mentioned.
Redemption came in Act Two with the melodic sweetness and simplicity of the “Suddenly Seymour” duet from Audrey and Seymour, and then the smooth and very jazzy “Suppertime,” sung by the hungry plant in the pleasing vocal persona of Miss Bradow. Then Chakurian showed his versatility, in multiple bit parts and falsetto singing, during “The Meek Shall Inherit.”
I won’t give away the plot’s conclusion, but suffice to say that for this viewer, the show’s ending seemed a bit confused and lacking in focus. But by that time I had had enough fun to make it worth the trip.
Little Shop will be performed tonight, July 26th, and Saturday July 29th at 8p.m. in the Zilkha Hall of Houston’s Hobby Center. For tickets and information visit www.thehobbycenter.org or call 713-315-2525.