The plant steals the show in StageWorks Fresno’s chipper “Little Shop of Horrors,” which is as it should be. Carnivorous leafy life forms are a rarity in the musical theater canon, especially ones that sing and dance, and the plant is a big part of why this much-loved musical has become a community-theater staple. I envy neophyte audience members to this show who get to experience that voice — and those moves — for the first time.
It actually takes two actors to make Audrey II, as the mysterious plant is known, do its thing in the Fresno Art Museum’s Bonner Auditorium. Will Bishop, who voices the plant, is terrific. He brings a wry edge and an excellent singing voice to the role, paying homage both to its Motown roots while still finding his own contemporary take. And Logan Cooley, as the “body,” is spot-on in terms of the plant’s movements, connecting with and adding to Bishop’s artistic interpretation.
There are other strong performances in this crisp StageWorks production, which is nattily directed by Joel C. Abels. (And a couple that didn’t impress me quite as much, but I’ll get to that in a moment.) The vocals in particular are top-notch (a hat tip to vocal director Terry Estabrook), and the scenic design (by Abels and Aaron Lowe), which creates the cozy “Skid Row” florist’s shop that is the centerpiece of the show, works well in the small Bonner space.
Besides the plant, the main reason “Little Shop” has continued to captivate audiences is Alan Menken’s music and Howard Ashman’s book and lyrics, which offer a big dose of doo-wop and goofy humor. The four women in this production make those musical numbers soar.
The first is Abigail Nolte, who made her StageWorks debut earlier this year in “The Full Monty.” In “Little Shop,” the veteran performer really gets to shine. Her Audrey, the florist-shop assistant who is sadly content at the top of the show to accept her doleful existence, is all she should be: sweet, mousy, a little dippy, a lot vixenish. I’ve seen quite a few Audreys in my time, and while Nolte might not show off vocally with quite as throaty a belt in such songs as “Suddenly Seymour” as I’ve experienced in the past, her notes are strong and pure, and she manages to find a tenderness in Audrey that seems fresh. (Her “Somewhere That’s Green” is exquisite.) She is a consummate performer in this show.
The other three women are the “street urchin chorus”: Crystal (Kindle Cowger), Ronnette (Caitlin Lopez) and Chiffon (Mackenzie Stafford), who offer polished harmonies and spiffy dance moves as they give a running commentary on the proceedings. (Josh Montgomery’s choreography is brisk and fun.) Each of the women gets a chance to stand out in various solo moments — and they do — but even more impressive is their smooth work as a trio. They’re the musical foundation upon which the rest of the production rests.
Mark Standriff gives an amiable, polished performance as Mushnik, the beleaguered florist whose business suddenly skyrockets when the “strange and interesting” Audrey II appears. (His holding-his-breath scene is a hoot.) The caretaker of that plant, of course, is Seymour (Terry Lewis), who early on makes a rather grisly discovery about his new charge.
I am probably in the minority here, and I say this with all respect to Lewis, a beloved local theater veteran whom I’ve highly praised in so many roles it’d be hard to count, but he just didn’t completely click with me as Seymour. To put it bluntly: I think he comes across as too mature for the role. Lewis is a fine actor and singer, and he certainly has the part down, but I didn’t feel much chemistry — the unlikely spark of romance that makes this show so endearing — between him and Nolte.
I’m disappointed with Ted Nunes in the pivotal role of Orin, Audrey’s abusive boyfriend. I was impressed with Nunes in the last production I saw him in, the elegant “Hedda Gabler,” but in the Sunday matinee performance I saw of “Little Shop” he couldn’t master the comic timing and sense of vaudevillian exuberance that the role requires. From his big revelatory moment in the first act to his quick-change, multi-character routine in the second, his performance had a stiffness to it and lack of confidence that sapped some of the show’s energy.
The rest of the creative team (Dan Adalpe’s fine lighting design, Kyle Jensen’s strong sound design) adds to the show’s sturdy visual appeal. I liked most of Lisa Schumacher’s costumes, especially her extravagant creations for the urchin trio. But Audrey’s wardrobe left me confused. It’s rather jarringly “untacky,” almost at times posh, which doesn’t fit the script. (Audrey at one point says of her night job at a sleazy bar, “I’d put on cheap and tasteless outfits. Not nice ones like this.” That laugh line didn’t earn a peep from the audience.) Eric Gomez’s wigs are indispensable.
The show overall has a polished StageWorks feel, and it hits the small but insistent moral lesson of the material quite nicely. Fame and fortune often come at a price.
And, finally, kudos to the wonderful live band, directed with gusto by Tim Fletcher, which elevates the music in the show. As you leave the musicians will have you humming “But whatever they offer you, don’t feed the plants.” Even ones that sound and move as well as this Audrey II.
“Little Shop of Horrors,” runs through Oct. 22, Fresno Art Museum. $25, $23 students and seniors.
Cabaret: Join the cast of “Little Shop of Horrors” along with some special guests as they perform spooky and magical post-show tunes immediately following the Friday, Oct. 13, performance. Suggested donation: $10.
Exclusive: The plant tells all: As StageWorks Fresno opens a three-week run of ‘Little Shop of Horrors,’ we ‘interview’ the veteran actor who plays Audrey II, with an assist from Logan Cooley and Will Bishop
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