If ever there was a musical that embodied the notion of “the little musical that could,” it would be Little Shop of Horrors, the kooky 1982 Off-Broadway musical that rightfully earned its place among musical theater’s most beloved comedies, thanks mostly to the terrific 1986 Frank Oz film that allowed the story of a bloodthirsty plant named Audrey II to enter into our collective consciousness for… well, ever.
It’s been a staple of both community and professional theater companies ever since, not least of all because the Howard Ashman and Alan Menken score—years before they collaborated on The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and Beauty of the Beast—is relentlessly fun, catchy, and smart. Ashman died from complications of AIDS in 1991 at the age of 40, bringing about the end to a songwriting partnership that was as promising as any duo since Rodgers and Hammerstein.
As a high-profile, nearly sold-out revival of the musical is about to open Off-Broadway with Jonathan Groff and Tammy Blanchard, Boston’s Lyric Stage has just kicked off its 45th season with its own production. Directed by local musical whisperer Rachel Bertone, this Little Shop of Horrors is largely as much of a treat as it ever was, though it falls into several traps that have become customary with the Lyric Stage’s musical outings of late.
The truth is, it’s been about four years since a musical has truly worked well in the Lyric’s unique space (the last slam-dunk production was My Fair Lady in 2015). Ever since, its musical productions have seldom found the professionalism and finesse of the Lyric’s nonmusical offerings, and the same can easily be said for Little Shop of Horrors, which suffers from a bit of miscasting, an inefficient sound design, and a production that seems to resist the honest-to-goodness camp that is the musical’s bleeding, bloody heart.
As the sweet, abused Audrey, Katrina Z. Pavao exudes the basic gentility and ditziness that is required to play the role, but her Audrey doesn’t seem breakable, and if she’s to break our hearts, we’ve got to believe in that vulnerability wholeheartedly. Pavao—in a terrible wig—seems too strong to ever really be in peril, and yet her singing is too demure for the kind of sing-your-face-off anthems that are usually the high points of the musical’s score.
Dan Prior is well-cast as Seymour, the nerdy flower shop clerk who becomes an overnight sensation, but he falls victim—as so many have at the Lyric—to a sound design that favors the orchestra over the performers (the sound here is designed by Andrew Duncan Will). And he’s not the only one: Even the generally excellent urchins (played by Pier Lamia Porter, Lovely Hoffman, and Carla Martinez) sometimes sound as if they’re singing at half power. It’s high time that the Lyric looks into microphone options for its musicals.
The best performances here are the supporting ones: Remo Airaldi is a near-perfect Mushnik, and as sadistic dentist Orin (and a slew of other characters), Jeff Marcus is giving the best performance that I’ve seen him give to date. As the voice of Audrey 2, Yewande Odetoyinbo comes across as too meek and polite rather than menacing, which contributes to the ineffectiveness of some of the play’s final scenes.
Speaking of the play’s final scenes (in which a full-size Audrey 2 eats a handful of humans and takes over the theater), both the design and the execution of the giant puppet push this production into territory so shoddy that there’s no coming back. Designed by Cameron McEachern and controlled by Tim Hoover, the plant’s movements failed to always match up with the dialogue and singing, and the illusion of the plant ingesting humans is ruined by the fact that the audience can clearly see a fabric tunnel through which the just-eaten actors crawl to get off stage. And the less that’s said about the actors slinking on stage like Cats for the finale in brown socks, the better, though Marian Bertone’s costumes are generally—as always—spot on. Franklin Meissner Jr.’s lighting and Janie E. Howland’s set are probably the best looking (and most professional) aspects of this production.
All snark aside, director Rachel Bertone is one of Boston’s best musical assets, but it doesn’t seem like her collaborations with the Lyric (Kiss of the Spider Woman, Gypsy, and Little Shop) allow her to create at her fullest potential. (Her best work—Carousel, In the Heights, and Cabaret—were all staged elsewhere).
Don’t get me wrong: This is an adequate and enjoyable production. But it ought to have been so much more.
LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS. THROUGH 10.6 AT THE LYRIC STAGE COMPANY OF BOSTON, 140 CLARENDON ST., BOSTON. LYRICSTAGE.COM
Theater critic for TheaterMania & WBUR’s TheArtery | Theater Editor for DigBoston | film and music critic for EDGE Media | Boston Theater Critics Association.