Oh, the horror: devil gets his due

Portland Center Stage trumps the season with a sharp and funny revival of the dark and twisted musical comedy "Little Shop of Horrors"

Maybe you’ve heard this story before. Exotic guy who talks tons of trash shows up out of the blue and fascinates just about everybody with his general weirdness. Schlub of a loser soon learns the guy is scary and dangerous in addition to being an obnoxious loudmouth, but the exotic guy promises the schlub his heart’s desire. So the schlub, after some anxious soul-searching, capitulates and helps the exotic guy on his quest for world domination. People get chomped to pieces in the process.

No, it’s not the story of the Republican Party making its devil’s deal with Donald Trump in pursuit of the Oval Office. It’s the musical comedy Little Shop of Horrors, and the exotic guy is a blood-sucking, singing plant from outer space. The schlub is a hapless clerk named Seymour at a Skid Row floral shop. His heart’s desire is Audrey, his pretty if slightly dim and bedraggled fellow clerk, who’s in an unfortunate relationship with a sadistic dentist. And the Oval Office is … well, a little trim house out in the suburbs, somewhere that’s green.

Nick Cearley as Seymour, with a baby-sized Audrey II. Photo: Patrick Weishampel

Nick Cearley as Seymour, with a baby-sized Audrey II. Photo: Patrick Weishampel

Little Shop, that evergreen 1983 off-off-Broadway musical based on a 1960 schlock movie filmed in two days by Roger Corman on the not-yet-struck set of another low-budget flick, opened Portland Center Stage’s newest season Friday night, and the good news is, it’s a solid, straightforward, blissfully unconceptualized production of a reliably entertaining show that doesn’t need any embellishment. Director Bill Fennelly doesn’t try to reinvent the thing: he just makes sure it’s polished and paced and, yes, entertaining. If you have a warm spot for Little Shop – I do, and fondly recall, among a lengthy list of Little Shops, a long-ago Portland production starring Randall Stuart as Seymour, Margie Boulé as Audrey, Randy Knee as dentist Orin, and Ernie Casciato as shop owner Mushnik – you’re likely to feel warm and fuzzy all over again. If you’ve never seen Little Shop … well, welcome to the club.

Little Shop is a play with many delicious parts, and Fennelly & Co. lay the dinner table well. The harmonizing trio of Chiffon (Johari Nandi Mackey), Crystal (Alexis Tidwell) and Ronette (Ebony Blake) act as a sassy girl-group Greek chorus, keeping the action quick and snappy. Jamison Stern exudes oiliness as bad boyfriend Orin, and doubles down in a series of drag walk-ons in pale, kabuki-like makeup. David Meyers is a gruff and raspy Mushnik; it’s a bit of a surprise to realize he’s not chomping on an unlit two-day-old cigar. And the evil Audrey II itself – a plant once described as “an anthropomorphic cross between a Venus flytrap and an avocado” – is nicely double-teamed by Chaz Rose (voice) and puppeteer Stephen Kriz Gardner, who keeps the tentacles waving and the teeth chomping.

This show often makes or breaks on the simpatico between Audrey and Seymour, and Gina Milo and Nick Cearley bring some dazzle to the duo at Center Stage. Cearley’s physically bigger than the standard pint-sized Seymour (Rick Moranis starred in the 1986 movie version, which also featured a memorably weird and transformatively funny performance by Steve Martin as the psycho dentist) but is utterly convincing as a nebbish store clerk driven by a dream, and he sings the role beautifully. Milo sings Audrey with great passion, too, and together they bring the house down with the love duet Suddenly, Seymour. I’ve seen Seymour and Audrey played more campily, and that can be hilarious. Cearley and Milo suggest the camp – Milo’s lip can quiver and her voice can squeak – but they keep a human grounding that allows the audience to understand and empathize with their characters’ simple desires. Audrey’s sweet suburban longings (for something modest, not so grand as Levittown) seem somehow almost ennobling, like Hemingway’s clean well-lighted place.

David Meyers as Mushnik and Gina Milo as Audrey. Photo: Patrick Weishampel

David Meyers as Mushnik and Gina Milo as Audrey. Photo: Patrick Weishampel

Little Shop of Horrors is often called a rock musical, but it’s really not, any more than Hair is: its musical bloodlines run to Motown and pre-Beatles Hit Parade. It was the first hit of the remarkable team of composer Alan Mencken and lyricist Howard Ashman, who went on to create the likes of Disney’s Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, and part of Aladdin before Ashman died of AIDS in 1991. Ashman’s lyric wit was an ideal match for Mencken’s clever and accessible songwriting, and although Mencken has gone on to create several more hits, he’s never again found a lyricist who seemed to match him so well. Mencken & Ashman were more Lieber & Stoller than Rodgers & Hammerstein or Bernstein & Sondheim, but given more chance they might’ve been a classic team.

As sheerly fun as this show is, it feels more like late summer than early fall – a last gasp of vacation, not a determined wrestle with a new set of books. It’s fair to ask whether a show as light as Little Shop is an apt season opener for the biggest theater company in town. Then again, Little Shop has its metaphorical depths. And Center Stage’s season will get more serious soon enough: Jeanne Sakata’s Hold These Truths, the story of a Japanese American citizen wrongly imprisoned after Pearl Harbor, begins previews October 1 in the downstairs Ellen Bye Studio.

Jamison Stern as Orin the dentist, surrounded by (l-r): Alexis Tidwell as Crystal, Johari Nandi Mackey as Chiffon and Ebony Blake as Ronnette. Photo: Patrick Weishampel

Jamison Stern as Orin the dentist, with (l-r): Alexis Tidwell as Crystal, Johari Nandi Mackey as Chiffon, Ebony Blake as Ronnette. Photo: Patrick Weishampel

Meanwhile, enjoy the Horrors while you can. It looks and sounds stylish: movable set by Michael Schweikardt, droll costumes by Kathleen Geldard, sound by Casi Pacilio, lighting by William C. Kirkham (watch out for those bright lights at the end, when the confetti starts falling), very snappy choreography by Kent Zimmerman. The always solid Rick Lewis is music supervisor, and Jeffrey Childs leads the off-stage band, which also includes Tim Ribner, Will Amend, Mitch Wilson, and Eric Toner.

Then there are the frightful pleasures of that people-chomping plant. It’s true, I half-expected to see a shaggy orange hairpiece perched atop Audrey II’s head, just to go along with our current nervous times. But then, that’s my fantasy. One of the beauties of Little Shop’s dark tale of temptation and downfall is that its Don Giovanni-style story’s so malleable. There are downfalls, and there are downfalls. You could fit your cautionary fantasy inside it, too.


Portland Center Stage’s Little Shop of Horrors continues through October 16 on the mainstage of The Armory. Ticket and schedule information here.

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