‘Little Shop of Horrors’ Lakewood Playhouse stages perennial favorite

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Audrey (Jennifer Redston) and Seymour (Niclas Olson) pose with the midsized version of Audrey II. Photo by Tim Johnston

“Little Shop of Horrors,” an Off-Broadway hit of the early to mid 1980s – and now the production that culminates Lakewood Playhouse’s 79th season – is very much a creature of the decade that birthed it. The retro, rock and roll musical synthesizes much of 1980s pop culture, including that decade’s nostalgia for the culture of the 1950’s and early 60s. During the final decade of the Cold War, in which the world was perpetually perched on the precipice of nuclear annihilation, television shows like “Happy Days” and “Laverne and Shirley” exemplified the fondness for the innocence of the post war years. In tandem with the infatuation for post WWII Americana was a fascination for vintage sci-fi “creature features” (and the art work thereof) like “The Blob” and “The Creature from the Black Lagoon.”

1980s bands like the B-52s captured a tongue-in-cheek edginess of it all by rehashing the hokey vibe of 50s and 60s pop images and styles. The female members of the group sported beehive hairdos and miniskirts and their surfer-style music incorporated science fiction and retro-pop cultural themes.

The late 1970s and 80s were also the time when puppetry began to break out of the realm of children’s entertainment and make its way into entertainment forms with broad based appeal. Jim Hensen’s “Muppets” had their own hit television show and puppet-based characters were major parts of many fantasy and science fiction movies; from Yoda and the Ewoks of “Star Wars” fame to the Skeksis, Mystics and Gelflings in “The Dark Crystal.”

“Little Shop of Horrors,” the creation of writer Howard Ashman and composer Alan Menken (who would go on to collaborate on Disney musicals like “The Little Mermaid,” Beauty and the Beast” and “Aladdin”) was a potent compilation of the above ingredients. Built on the framework of a B-grade sci-fi creature feature movie (the 1960 movie also called “Little Shop of Horrors”) the creators came up with a musical score using early 60s rock and roll, doo-wop and early Motown. The female cast members are decked out in retro-hair styles and miniskirts. The musical spoof and celebration of nostalgia for post war America (perhaps an ironic nostalgia that was meant to fly in the face of the Reagan administration’s backward-looking stance), ran from 1982 to 1987, becoming the then third-longest running show in Off-Broadway history and its biggest money maker. The show has been part of the canon of shows that circulate on the community theater and school theater circuit ever since.

Orin (Will Johnson) gets a little too much gas as the mad dentist. Seymour looks on as the dentist wears his “special nitrous oxide mask.” The Lakewood Playhouse production of “Little Shop of Horrors” runs through June 24. Photo by Tim Johnston

The Lakewood Playhouse production, directed by Chris Serface (who is also the managing artistic director at Tacoma Little Theatre), features great performances of acting, singing and dance choreography. Now rigged with updated sound and lighting, Lakewood Playhouse is able to pull off a seamless production of this technologically challenging musical. Blake R. York’s set design, featuring a rotating flower shop, sets the mood for the fantastical, down-beat, comical tragedy. The rapidly growing, ever-hungry, sentient plant, Audrey II, whose transformation from a potted baby to a behemoth monstrosity, proves to be endlessly captivating as a series of puppets are used to represent the growth stages of the vegetative beast.

The Lakewood Playhouse production stars Niclas Olson as Seymour and Jennifer Redston as Audrey. The multi-talented Olson adapts and directs plays for his own New Muses Theater Company and does lights at Tacoma Little Theater. In “Little Shop,” he exhibits not only his acting skills – his portrayal of Seymour, a nerdy New Yorker, is reminiscent of Harrison Ford’s portrayal of Branch Rickey in the film “42” —but also demonstrates that he is an accomplished vocalist as well as an able-bodied puppeteer.

Redston, meanwhile, is an import from the UK where she attended the Guildford School of Acting. She combines lush, satiny vocals with a New York accent to craft a sumptuous musical performance, which is reminiscent of Cindy Lauper at her most lyrical. Clad in high heels and short skirts, Redston’s rendition of Audrey, the stripper and shop girl, is like a combination of Betty Boop and Bettie Page. She exudes the vulnerable sexuality of the damsel in destress that is characteristic of B-grade “creature feature” films.

A revelation of this production is the performance turned in by Gig Harbor High School senior Will Johnson, who plays Orin, the sadomasochistic dentist – among other roles. Exuberant and charismatic, Johnson seems perpetually on the brink of cracking himself up – a sensation that spills out into the audience, who are clearly delighted by the delight that Johnson takes as he careens into the personas of his various characters. With a wet snarl and well-oiled ringlets, Johnson launches into his main tune, “Dentist!”

Another standout is Eric Clausell, who first draws attention as a wino that sings the baritone parts in the opening songs and who later performs the vocal parts of the huge, speaking plant Audrey II. Clausell is coming off a tour de force, one-man performance as Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall in the recent Broadway Center production of “Thurgood.”

Tim McFarlan, as Muchnik, the proprietor of the skid row flower shop, demonstrates that he is capable of great things with his flawless performance. Antoinette Nicole Bridges, Joelle Craft and Brittany Griffins function as a sort of big-haired Greek Chorus, helping to narrate and make commentary on the goings on as the play progresses. Here and there, Griffins gets to highlight the sultry vocal power that made her performance as Gertrude McFuzz in TLT’s recent production of “Seussical” so memorable. 

Dubbed a “horror-comedy-rock-musical,” “Little Shop of Horrors” features some catchy songs like “Somewhere That’s Green,” “Suddenly, Seymour” and “Call Back in the Morning.” The various vocalists often have lyrical lines that merge into harmonious and soothing streams of sonic silkiness. Seemingly designed as unadulterated entertainment and spectacle, there is nevertheless the old Faustian tale of the deal with the devil buried in the soft and fluffy center of this masterful, musical monstrosity. Audrey II brings fame and fortune to the downtrodden Seymour. But the plant can only grow when given human blood and it needs more and more as it gets bigger and bigger. Seymour’s dilemma is whether or not to hang on for the ride or to get out before he gets in any deeper than he already is.

Embedded in all the glitz and humor is a setting of grinding poverty and urban blight. There are suggestions of domestic violence and animal abuse, which are meant to accentuate the sinister nature of the villain, but which also give the affair a dark and dreary patina.

Overall, however, this is a well-crafted piece of theatrical art. “Little Shop of Horrors” runs through June 24. For scheduling, ticketing and other information call (253) 588-0042 or visit www.lakewoodplayhouse.org.

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