Little Shop of Horrors

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Provo Theatre Company began its 17th season in fine form, with “The Prisoner of Second Avenue” reminding the valley what it had missed during the theater’s yearlong hiatus. Now, despite ups and downs in the middle, the season draws to a smashing close with a vigorous production of “Little Shop of Horrors” that is as near to perfection as PTC has been in awhile.

Directed by David Tinney, who directed the 2000 production at the same venue, “Little Shop” is a fast-moving, highly entertaining show that can switch from dark comedy to tender drama at the drop of a hat. Tinney has, for the most part, followed writer/lyricist Howard Ashman’s admonition that the show should not be campy or ironic, but should instead allow its characters to be human and its situations, though unusual, to seem universal.

This is no small feat. Based on a schlocky 1960 horror film, “Little Shop” is about a man-eating plant and the schlub it convinces to do its evil bidding. The schlub is Seymour (Aaron DeJesus), a wimpy flower shop employee who works on Skid Row under the stern eye of Mr. Mushnik (Chris Brower), whose ill temper is the result of business being bad, and of his being stuck on Skid Row.

Mushnik’s desire to get out of Skid Row is shared by the other protagonists. Seymour longs for a better life, as does fellow employee Audrey (Korianne Johnson), a beautiful platinum blonde who would like to live someplace where the guys will treat her with more respect than she gets from her sadomasochistic dentist biker boyfriend Orin (Matt Cloward).

One day, Seymour stumbles upon a strange new flytrap whose genus he cannot find in any of his botany books. The plant, which he nicknames Audrey II, demonstrates a taste for blood, and then flesh, leading to the show’s horror/dark comedy aspects and its finale that is a combination of a ’50s B-movie and a Greek tragedy. (Befitting the dual influences, the show is narrated by a Greek chorus of doo-wop girls, played by Tanya Barkdull, Cassy Child and Tamera Stambaugh.)

Having seen him in several other shows, I would not have picked the handsome and self-assured Aaron DeJesus to play nerdy Seymour, a character generally portrayed as tall and gawky, two things DeJesus is the opposite of. His performance, then, is a bit of a surprise, as he very nicely fills out the nooks and crannies of the role. He has a particularly strong moment during the song “Feed Me,” when he becomes enraged enough at Orin’s treatment of Audrey to do something about it. This critical moment — the turning point for Seymour’s character and the show’s plot — is often neglected, but Tinney’s direction and DeJesus’ intense performance give it the weight it deserves.

Chris Brower’s dance-prone performance as the pear-shaped Mr. Mushnik is delightfully physical, and the doo-wop girls all have strong, clear voices. Matt Cloward, on the other hand, is a bit much as Orin the evil dentist, doing camp while the rest of the characters are playing it straight. He is funniest when he’s being quirky, less so when he’s being outrageous.

Tinney made the unusual choice of having Audrey II’s voice provided by a woman. The script doesn’t indicate a gender, but it’s traditionally been played by a man, including in the 1986 film version. Marcie Jacobsen, singing from backstage while Seth Child manipulates the massive puppet on stage, has a voice that is soulful enough for Audrey II’s funky blues solos. Making the plant female adds another dynamic to Seymour’s relationship with it, and it’s a little exciting when the two women in Seymour’s life — Audrey and Audrey II — face each other in the penultimate scene, fighting, on some level, to be the sole object of Seymour’s affection.

But to quote Seymour: And then there’s Audrey, lovely Audrey. Korianne Johnson is the best Audrey I’ve ever seen, better even than Ellen Greene, who originated the role off-Broadway and played her in the film version. Where Greene often used the affected “I’m in a musical” style of acting, Johnson is purely natural. Her Audrey speaks in a high-pitched Brooklyn accent, but comes off innocent and sweet rather than whiny or squawking. The tendency is to play her as a ditzy blonde, but Johnson imbues the character with warmth and humanity, providing the very soul of the show. Her signature number, “Somewhere That’s Green,” is gently funny, mildly parodic and heart-meltingly sincere.

And so “Little Shop of Horrors” is funny, dark, touching and genuine, enabled by Ashman’s clever words and Alan Menken’s catchy music. My hat is off to a cast that can utter a line like “You ate everything I ever loved!” and say it without a trace of irony.

"Little Shop" is one of my absolute favorite musicals of all time. Just so you know, the film, which alters the ending to make it happier, ruins it.

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