It's amazing what legs a lighthearted spoof can have. Little Shop of Horrors got its start in 1960 as a seventy-minute black-and-white movie, featuring Jack Nicholson in a small role and shot by director Roger Corman in two days — either on a bet, or because he still had three days left at the studio he'd been renting for something else, depending on what source you believe. From there, it grew into a musical, Little Shop of Horrors, which opened off Broadway in 1982 and ran for five years. In 1986 the musical inspired another film, with Steve Martin giving a brilliant performance as Orin, the sadistic, black-leather-clad dentist.
Here's the brilliantly nutty central conceit: An alien embodied in a cannibalistic plant is determined to proliferate and consume the human race. To do this, he employs the unwitting services of Seymour, an innocent nerd employed in a skid-row florist shop. The script evokes all kinds of familiar tropes. Seymour's background, for example, comes right out of Oliver Twist. A poor orphan, he was rescued by Mushnik, the flower shop's owner, put to work and given a spot to sleep under the counter. Seymour is in love with comely blond shop assistant Audrey, but she's been claimed by Orin and is afraid to leave him. As the tiny plant that Seymour discovered in an alley reveals its murderous nature — and begins to grow — he's confronted with a Faustian dilemma: Audrey II, as he's named the thing, can bring him wealth and fame and help him win Audrey I, but only if he feeds its insatiable appetite for blood — and alas, finger-prick drops will only go so far. The plant needs meat.
A big reason for Little Shop's success is Alan Menken's catchy, rhythmic music, much of it a takeoff on the hits of such 1950s girl groups as the Chiffons, Crystals and Ronettes — and in fact, the trio of vocalists who accompany much of the action are named Chiffon, Crystal and Ronnette. But they raise classic echoes, too. Do they represent a Greek chorus as well as a girl group? Or are they perhaps evil spirits, like the witches whose prophecies urge Macbeth to murder? Little Shop cheerfully alludes to and then dumps such concepts, while ladling in horror-movie and pop-culture references by the score.
Little Shop of Horrors
Presented by Boulder's Dinner Theatre through May 3, 5501 Arapahoe Avenue, Boulder, 303-449-6000, www.boulders-dinnertheatre.com.
Boulder's Dinner Theatre does a great job of capturing the show's capering energy. As always, the costumes are witty, the set well-designed and the orchestra's sound infectiously effervescent. But the actors really give the production its soul, and several good ones are on hand, foremost among them strong-voiced Brandon Dill as Seymour. He makes the character physically lithe, in a droopily round-shouldered way, and he's so emotionally expressive that you actually sort of feel for him, despite the ridiculous implausibility of the story. He's matched by Joanie Brosseau-Beyette's lisping, breathy Audrey, with her '50s vamp clothes and candy-floss, Monroe-blond hair. The talented Wayne Kennedy has a blast with Mushnik, particularly in the song-and-dance scene where he claims Seymour as a son; filled with glee, prancing and shaking his shoulders, he makes Mushnik into a malevolent Tevya. A.K. Klimpke clearly enjoys his preening, posturing role as the evil Orin — so thoroughly that you find yourself laughing helplessly whenever he's on stage. There are also tiny but highly entertaining vignettes from company stalwarts Brian Norber, Scott Beyette and Shelly Cox-Robie. As the girl trio, Lexi Strickland, Claire Grout and Emily MaComber harmonize well; MaComber, in particular, has a glorious voice. But the three need to work on their moves; they lack the style and sharp synchronicity of the groups they're satirizing.
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Finally, there's Robert Johnson, invisible through the entire evening as Audrey II's voice. It's a joy when this skilled jazz singer finally emerges from Audrey's fabric embrace during the finale, grabbing a mike and exhorting us: "Don't feed the plants."