Little Shop of Horrors Is a Bloody Good Time

Doo-wop girls to man-eating plants, Portland Center Stage’s cult musical revival is totally killer.

By Kelly Clarke September 27, 2016

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Nick Cearley as Seymour in Little Shop of Horrors

I shouldn’t need to convince you to go see Little Shop of Horrors. After all, Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s cult musical is about a giant singing plant who convinces a Skid Row flower shop nerd to kill and feed him people to gain fame and the love of a blonde with a heart of gold (and handcuffs in her clutch). There is also a sadistic dentist* and doo-wop girls. Really, it sells itself.

But with this revival of the 1982 off-Broadway hit (itself a sharp spoof of Roger Corman’s darker B-movie of the same name**), directed by Bill Fennelly, Portland Center Stage more than delivers on the musical’s gleefully biting tone and earworm tunes. With great set design, sharp performances, and one mean mother of a plant, the local company perfects it. So, in case you were on the fence, here are three more reasons to grab seats before its run finishes up on October 16.

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Jamison Stern as Orin the dentist, surrounded by (l-r): Alexis Tidwell as Crystal, Johari Nandi Mackey as Chiffon and Ebony Blake as Ronnette.

IT’S GOT THE ULTIMATE GIRL GROUP Has there ever been a cooler Greek chorus than Little Shop’s trio of 1960s era doo-wop girls? Answer: No. Chiffon (Johari Nandi Mackey), Crystal (Alexis Tidwell), and Ronette (Ebony Blake), set the show’s wry, rollicking tone from the first note, grooving through Little Shop’s upbeat, oddly trenchant Motown-style numbers about inner-city decay and moral dilemmas involving oversized Venus Flytraps bent on world domination.

PCS's trio is a standout, teasing, cajoling, and providing dire warnings for flower shop assistant Seymour (an able Nick Cearley, who looks exactly like Rivers Cuomo) of his Faustian bargain with copious shang-a-langs and sha-la-las along the way. If this girl group could act as singing fact checkers during the next presidential debate, my life would be perfect.

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David Meyers as Mushnik and Gina Milo as Audrey

THIS AUDREY BRINGS DOWN THE HOUSE Audrey, the bubble-headed blonde that captures Seymour’s heart, is often played broad (literally), tottering around on those sky-high heels and wheezing out lines about broken arms and black eyes in a Long Island accent that tacks several syllables onto every word. Although performer Gina Milo has goofball charm and great timing in spades, she also adds unexpected Mariana Trench-level depth to the character too. You can’t take your eyes off her anytime she’s onstage.

Her crowning moment comes near the end of her signature Act 1 number, “Somewhere That’s Green,” where she imagines her suburban dream home, with “plastic on the furniture, to keep it neat and clean.” Milo manages to infuse the song with so much pathos it’s as if someone has plunked down Les Miz’s “I Dreamed a Dream” in the middle of Little Shop of Horrors. Somewhere between Audrey’s wishes for a “fence of real chain link” and a “bedtime of 9:15,” you realize that you’re rooting for her. And as her face crumples and the reality of her sad little life reasserts itself it’s heartbreaking and honestly, kinda epic. “Did I just tear up in the middle of ‘Somewhere That’s Green’?” my husband whispered to me during the show. Yeah. We all did.

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David Meyers as Mushnik and Nick Cearley as Seymour with Audrey II (voice by Chaz Rose, manipulation by Stephen Kriz Gardner)

THE OTHER AUDREY IS MASSIVE AND AMAZING Little Shop is nothing without its trash talking, vine-waving, face-snapping plant, Audrey II—named, of course, for Seymour’s paramour. PCS’s in-house props team has outdone itself with the trio of plants they've created, including a towering, rainbow-warted, full-grown behemoth that lends major shock and awe to the show’s second act. Onstage, puppeteer Stephen Kriz Gardner imbues Audrey II with an uncanny range of voracious emotions, lending the massive plant a puppyish little shimmy when Seymour finally gives in and tosses him a bloody foot or hand; tapping those long, gnarled roots to the beat of his song. Meanwhile, actor Chaz Rose's booming pipes perfectly capture Audrey II’s seductive, foul-mouthed voice, wheedling and pleading “Feeeeeeed me!” one moment and slamming down the soulful “Suppertime” gambit the next. Together, these two men make one awesome plant.

Little Shop of Horrors is at the Gerding Theater through Sunday, Oct 16.

* Jamison Stern plays the dentist with delightfully unhinged aplomb for PCS’s version.

**You probably know Frank Oz’s iconic 1986 movie version of Little Shop with Steve Martin as the gas-huffing dentist even better. No? You should probably stream that sucker right now on iTunes or Amazon. 

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