Americans have an affinity for ghoulish comedies. Arsenic and Old Lace, recently revived by the Guthrie, has kept audiences laughing at two murderous old ladies for generations. Rocky Horror Picture Show is another more recent example of this peculiarly American category of stage play.
If you enjoy this genre you can’t do better than the engaging production of Little Shop of Horrors at Artistry, in the Bloomington Center for the Arts (a theatre company formerly known as the Bloomington Civic). The production moves along with fleet precision under the direction of Joe Chvala and music director Anita Ruth.
It is hard to beat a musical about a man-eating venus fly trap plant that lifts a downtrodden florist and his two worthy employees out of poverty and into fame and financial security. The romance in the story centers around cute but misguided Audrey (Courtney Groves) and well-meaning but geeky Seymour (Ty Hudson), employees in Mr. Mushnik’s nearly bankrupt flower shop.
Audrey opens the show by coming to work with a bruised eye, dealt her by an abusive boyfriend. Mr. Mushnik (Michael Frischetti) and the secretly smitten Seymour try to get her to leave her motorcycle riding thug but she insists he is the best she can do in the romance department. Even the tough, city girls who form the chorus: Ronette, Crystal and Chiffon (Alicia Britton, Falicia Cunningham, and Jill Iverson) try to talk her into leaving him. Meanwhile the rare new specie of venus fly trap attracts more business. Money flows in. Unfortunately the plant must be fed to stay alive and the plot turns macabre when Seymour gives the beast his own blood to keep the flower going and the florist shop in the black.
Much of the music (Alan Menken, book and lyrics Howard Ashman) is of the soft rock type. There are engaging imitations of songs such as Petula Clark’s “Downtown” called appropriately “Skid Row” because this downtown suffers from inner city blight and is strewn with overflowing trash barrels. Other songs mimic other genres: blues, gospel, and sentimental ballad. My personal favorite is “Mushnik and Son” which melds klezmer and “Fernando’s Hideaway.” It’s performed by Mr Mushnik and his newly adopted adult son, Seymour, complete with a short tango interlude.
The set (Eli Schlatter, designer) is properly skewed and off kilter for the story. Those ebullient chorus girls win the prize for the best costumes (Ed Gleeman) and the most costume changes.
If you have never been, the impressive Schneider Theatre nestled inside the Bloomington Artistry center is a good venue for big musicals, complete with a broad proscenium stage, fly loft, and seating that keeps people close enough to catch the facial expressions of the actors.
The flaw in the show on opening night was the unbalanced sound system. The band in the orchestra pit was too loud, forcing the singers to be over-micked and distorting some of the lyrics. This was especially true for the chorus numbers and duets. Hopefully will be avoided once the techs get used to a nearly full house of people and the orchestra tones things down.
Much of the acting is well placed, not too melodramatic—an easy snare to fall into with such an over the top script. The main character, Seymour might have been a little more overtaken by the tangle of greed and sorrow at the end of the show but that was a director’s choice and it worked well enough. One of the best moments in the show is when the slightest smile comes over Seymour’s face as he confronts Audrey’s sadistic boyfriend, Orin (Phillip C. Matthews). It didn’t need any more than that since the whole audience was watching for his reaction. The subtlety of the gesture made it even more delicious. Overall, Artistry’s Little Shop of Horrors is as sunny a production as this dark comedy genre can get.