My first play in high school was “Little Shop of Horrors.” I was a sixteen-year-old junior, still in the midst of breaking out of my shy-nerd shell—and “Little Shop” pretty much completed the process. (Though playing Seymour, it helped to keep that shy-nerd persona around. My director/drama teacher told the local paper she instantly thought “Seymour!” the first time she ever saw me, and I’m still not sure whether that’s a compliment or an insult.)
It was a terrific experience.
But because it was my first play, I feel a sense of ownership over “Little Shop” that I don’t feel with any other show. Which means my relationship with “Little Shop” is a love/hate thing: it’s absolutely my favorite musical, no question (I’m one of those annoying people who lip-synchs along with all the songs), but I also have a really specific idea in my head for how I think the show ought to go—so invariably I end up walking out of the theater going, “Man, I loved that! But gee, if only they’d done this, and this, and this…”
(It’s a blessing and a curse.)
So. They’re doing “Little Shop” at East Chapel Hill High School, now through Saturday, 7:30 p.m. every night. Y’all should go.
Of course I was there for opening night. How did ECHHS’ version stack up to my imagined ideal?
Pretty well, actually, all things considered.
I was impressed as soon as I walked into the theater: the preshow soundtrack is all doo-wop music from the 50s and 60s, and they project a loop of old B-movie trailers against the curtain. Nicely played. I had a lot of fun just sitting there watching those.
As for the show itself. If you don’t know, “Little Shop” too is a takeoff of a B-movie horror flick, with songs inspired by early-60s doo-wop. It’s the story of a nebbish named Seymour Krelborn (played here by John Pate), working in a rundown Skid Row flower shop, whose life takes a sudden turn when he runs across a “strange and interesting” plant—an unidentifiable flytrap he names “Audrey 2” after the girl he’s secretly pining after (“the girl” here played by Danielle Katz). And suddenly everything’s great for Seymour—aside from the fact that the plant turns out to be a talking, scheming, very hungry alien with a taste for human flesh…
It’s a comedy. Go with it.
“Little Shop” is a popular show for high schools in part because it offers the coolest special effects that a high-school production can reasonably pull off. That would be Audrey 2, always the star of the show—a moving, talking plant that grows and grows as the show progresses. (How does it work? There are four Audrey 2 puppets all told: two hand puppets for the early scenes, then two much more elaborate contraptions manipulated by an unseen performer inside. In ECHHS’ production, Shira Snyder and Austin Lord are credited as the puppetmasters—but Pate, as Seymour, also gets to play puppeteer in one song. Watch for it.) Manipulating Audrey 2 is a daunting task—when our high school staged “Little Shop,” we cheated and had a teacher do it—so kudos to Snyder and Lord for making it work. (Kudos also to director Hope Hynes Love and set designer Alec Arshavsky. The set design for “Little Shop” is deceptively simple—all but one of the scenes take place either in or just outside the shop, but the design still needs to account for the fact that you have to move gigantic plants on and off stage in mid-scene, without anyone noticing. They do a fine job with it. I also liked the glass window they put in the backdrop—so you can see unheard conversations transpiring outside the shop throughout the show.)
So, how did it all come together?
I loved the little directorial touches Hope Hynes Love sprinkled throughout the show. A wino (Evan Douglass) takes a leak behind a phone booth. Audrey—the human Audrey—gives a dollar to a homeless woman. The Kleenex Seymour uses to win Audrey’s heart (“Suddenly Seymour”) gets called back later, when he’s weighing whether to destroy the plant and a spotlight suddenly fixes on it. Stick around for intermission, and you’ll catch Seymour creeping out on stage to dispose of evidence midway through.
And speaking of Seymour, let’s talk about the acting. From an actor’s perspective, “Little Shop” is a thin, thin tightrope to walk: it’s a campy parody, sure, but it also really cares about its lead characters, really loves them and wants them to succeed. Audrey’s song “Somewhere That’s Green” is the best example: it’s Audrey’s dream of a perfect life, and we chuckle because it’s so mundane—a garbage disposal, frozen dinners, a TV with a “big enormous 12-inch screen”—but at the same time, she believes in it so darn much that we find ourselves believing in it too. (Especially since Audrey’s real life is so horrible that, mundane as her dream is, it’s a dream she can never really hope to attain.) It’s a devastating song, when it’s done right. But you have to do it right. The temptation with “Little Shop” is to play up the camp and make it jokey—but the reason the show succeeds is that there’s a very real emotional heart at the center of it all, so to make it work you have to play it straight. (I saw the Broadway revival in 2004, with Joey Fatone as Seymour. They, um…did not play it straight.)
But as Seymour and Audrey, John Pate and Danielle Katz play it straight. “Suddenly Seymour,” their second-act duet, doesn’t have quite the crowd-rousing finish it could have, but whatever: Katz blows the roof off the place with “Somewhere That’s Green”—I got choked up—and Pate absolutely nails Seymour’s tragic desperation in his “Skid Row” solo. I could quibble with both performances if I want—all the actors do have those moments where they rush through the lines and choreography without stopping to feel them, and that’s true of the two leads as well—but let’s stick with this compliment: Pate and Katz get Seymour and Audrey better than anyone I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen “Little Shop” on Broadway.
(My one directorial quibble: Seymour should keep his glasses on.)
From the technical side, the show is solid but still has a few kinks. Well, really just one, and it’s the same problem you get with every musical: how to make sure the orchestra doesn’t overwhelm the actors’ voices. (The actors do wear mics, which helps a bit. I didn’t have much of a problem with it anyway, but then again I know all the songs by heart.) But I did find myself impressed with the lighting design, especially the use of strobes and backlighting to make Audrey 2 that much more menacing. Well done there. (Credit Domenica Sutherland for lights—and credit Audrey 2’s voice actors Ethan Fox and Jones Bell for the menacing laugh.)
Highlights: “Skid Row” and “Somewhere That’s Green” in the first act and “Suppertime” in the second; I also liked the grand finale, where the special effects really take over. (Lowlight: “Call Back In The Morning,” the opening number of the second act. This is not ECHHS’ fault. It is just a bad song.)
So, final verdict: Is “Little Shop” worth seeing? Absolutely. It’s true, I did walk out of the theater saying “Gee, if only they’d done this, and this, and this”…but I also walked out saying, “Man, I loved that.”
For me, with “Little Shop,” the two tend to go hand in hand.