Rebounding from an opening 10 minutes that are rather slow, Provo Theatre Company’s “Little Shop of Horrors” emerges to become a powerhouse, a morbidly funny musical that will have you laughing and tapping your toes, even as you’re wondering how a show about a man-eating plant could possibly be so entertaining.
Taking place in the ’50s and featuring catchy, wittily rhymed songs reminiscent of that era, “Little Shop” is about a skid-row nobody named Seymour (Josh Meurer) who works in a flower shop owned by the grumpily Jewish Mr. Mushnik (Ward Wright). He finds an unusual fly-trap plant and names it Audrey II, in honor of his beautiful co-worker (Kelly Fotheringham).
That co-worker is a scrawny, frail gal in an abusive relationship with an evil dentist named Orin (David Barrus). (“Sure, Seymour’s the greatest/But I’m dating a semi-sadist,” she sings contemplatively). She’s platinum blond, but not dumb: She just lacks self-esteem.
Seymour soon learns that the only way for Audrey II (the plant) to thrive is to feed it blood. It grows tremendously, bringing success to the business and fame to Seymour. But soon Audrey II starts talking (voiced by the soulful Daniel Law) and demanding not just blood, but meat, and promising untold personal success if Seymour complies. Finally seeing some hope of happiness in his life, he reluctantly finds people to feed to the plant.
It’s horrifying on paper, and it’s certainly a dark, campy comedy. But it’s also surprisingly meaningful. No one-layered farce, this: The characters develop, have moral dilemmas, and make decisions. A Greek chorus-style trio of singers (Marcie Jacobsen, Suzie Jacobsen, Jamie Kalama) narrates much of the action — fitting, since the play has many elements of a Greek tragedy.
Fotheringham is a standout as Audrey, flawlessly conveying the character’s sweetness and vulnerability. It is she who makes the play touching — yes, touching — in a couple scenes, especially as she manages to sing the parodic-but-sincere “Somewhere That’s Green” without a trace of irony. When she rhapsodizes about living in a tract home and “watching `Lucy’ on our big, enormous 12-inch screen,” she MEANS it. Guileless and tragic, Audrey makes or breaks the show. Here, she makes it.
She has help from David Barrus, whose dynamo performance as the dentist provides the show’s first major laughs. Meurer, as Seymour, acts the nebbish well, often with explosive energy — though, curiously, he seems not to act much when he’s singing. This presents a problem mainly near the end, when he makes his major decisions in song. We hear the words and we understand his dilemma, but we don’t see it in his face or hear it in his voice.
Clever special effects allow the crocodile-mouthed plant (puppeteered by Paul Johnson) to move, speak and eat, and eventually to dominate the stage in a finale that is much better than the watered-down version in the popular 1986 film.
Provo Theatre Company has been looking for a hit show to help boost ticket sales. If there is any justice in the world, this will be the one. Do yourself a favor and see it.
"Little Shop of Horrors" has long been one of my favorite shows. It was with this viewing, though, that I really began to appreciate just how great a show it is, how much more depth it has than most people give it credit for. It could have gotten away with just being a farcical dark comedy. But it goes above and beyond the call of duty, giving the characters motivations and backstories, and actually providing some meaning and insight in the process.
Few of us will ever be faced with the choice of burying our girlfriend or feeding her to a plant. But we've all had to make decisions in which neither option seemed appealing. The fact that "Little Shop" can have such an absurd, outlandish premise, yet still be universal in its basic story, is part of its genius.
There were quite a few high school students in the audience when I attended the show. One of them, a girl, laughed like a seal. It was an annoying, braying kind of laugh, and -- as if often the case with people who have annoying laughs -- she laughed at everything. In fact, she was often the only one laughing. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: If you frequently find that you're the only one laughing, that probably means you laugh too much.