In Little Shop of Horrors, currently showing at Miners Alley, Seymour, a nerdy young guy who works in a failing florist shop that’s situated, inexplicably, on skid row, is hopelessly in love with fellow worker Audrey. Unfortunately, she is in a relationship with Orin Scrivello, a sadistic dentist, and is too paralyzed by fear and insecurity to leave him. The action takes place in the 1960s, and Seymour has an Oliver Twist-ish backstory: An orphan, he was rescued by shop owner Mr. Mushnik. But Mushnik isn’t one of those kindly Dickensian rescuers; he made Seymour sleep under the counter and kept him on short rations, so now the kid is as shy and insecure as Audrey.
One evening, as Seymour explains in a song accompanied by helpful shoop-da-doos from a three-girl chorus that pops up intermittently throughout the evening, Seymour is wandering the flower district where an old Chinese man sometimes sells him interesting clippings. Suddenly, there’s an eclipse of the sun — and when light returns, Seymour sees a strange new plant among the old man’s offerings. He takes it to Mushnik’s shop and christens it Audrey II. At first, all goes well, with the plant bringing in all kinds of interested customers, but it soon turns out she has a taste for blood and an insatiable appetite, and the drops that Seymour squeezes from his own fingers simply aren’t enough. You know what happens next.
Little Shop has legs. It began as a short black-and-white movie featuring Jack Nicholson as the dentist, grew into a musical that ran on Broadway for five years, and inspired another film in 1986, this one starring Steve Martin. Something about the idea of meat-eating plants causes an almost primal shiver: You think of thick dangling vines descending to choke you in an embrace, or the twisted roots that reached from the floor of Walt Disney’s dark forest to catch Snow White’s ankles. And perhaps these days, with humankind rapidly destroying nature, the concept of nature’s revenge takes on a special edge. The script is cheeky and clever, and the music — ’60s rock, rhythm and blues, doo-wop — is catchy. There are some hilarious songs — “Dentist,” “Mushnik and Son” — as well as some very pretty ones: Audrey’s wistful and ironic “Somewhere That’s Green,” and the love duet “Suddenly, Seymour,” so soulfully and melodiously sung by Carter Edward Smith as Seymour and Jacquie Jo Billings’s Audrey that the Miners Alley audience erupted into cheers at the end.
This is a terrific production, with universally strong voices; clean, energetic music direction (Mitch Samu); an effective set (Kyle Scoggins); interestingly eccentric costumes (Laurie Scoggins); and a messily fecund Audrey II puppet by Jonathan Scott-McKean and Andy Claus that actually lures people into her blood-red cave of a mouth and appears to consume them. But, of course, everything depends on the performers, and there’s something close to transcendent going on among them.
In April, Miners Alley artistic director Brenda Worley Billings, who was supposed to direct Little Shop, died suddenly of a brain hemorrhage. For this close-knit company, her death was devastating. Her daughter, Jamie Billings, with whom she had already discussed the show at length, took over. In her director’s notes, Jamie quotes a scribble from her mother’s script: “Create a feeling of place where there is very little hope for prosperity. The feeling should be palpable. Go for honesty and truth — not campy.”
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A not-campy production of a musical that seems the very definition of camp? Somehow the cast’s sincerity works beautifully, making the songs and dialogue even funnier by contrast. When the girl group isn’t singing, Ronette (Alaina Beth Reel), Chiffon (Sonsharae Tull) and rich-voiced Crystal (Joelle Montoya) watch the action with genuine concern. Tim Fishbaugh is a funny-but-never-over-the-top Mr. Mushnik. Jake Mendes, however, pulls out all the stops as villainous Orin — exactly as he should. Unseen by the audience, Rory Pierce provides Audrey II’s big, expressive voice.
With his gentle smile, Smith is the sweetest Seymour imaginable, and where Aubrey is often played as a simpering blond caricature, Billings’s version is a real, vulnerable and eccentric young woman. You wholeheartedly want their love to succeed — but of the musical’s two possible endings, the company has chosen the tougher, more apocalyptic one. Which, given the overall gutsiness of the approach, fits perfectly.
Little Shop of Horrors
Presented by Miners Alley Playhouse through August 21, 1224 Washington Avenue, Golden, 303-935-3044, minersalley.com.