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Theater review: Selma Arts Center’s ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ offers some creative direction but also stumbles

Selma Arts Center puts a major twist on its production of “Little Shop of Horrors.” (The show continues for four more performances through Saturday, April 2.) I don’t want to give away the major surprise, but it’s also hard to talk about director Christopher Ortiz-Belcher’s radical concept without revealing what it entails. Those of you who are dimly aware of the show’s production history might not know or care what the big deal is. But for those plant-food connoisseurs who don’t want to ruin what could be a significant revelation, consider this first paragraph a spoiler alert.

Pictured above: Adrian Ammsso as Seymour in ‘Little Shop of Horrors.’ Photo: Selma Arts Center

Here’s the shocker: We get to “see” the voice behind Audrey 2. And not just at the curtain call. In most productions of “Little Shop,” the people-eating plant comes alive thanks to a behind-the-scenes vocalist – think of someone voicing an animated character – and a puppeteer, who provides the movement.

This time, though, the plant is personified, in the form of the actor I Adeficha, who emerges from the leaves in corporeal form to confront Seymour, the hapless florist-shop employee whose worldly fortunes have soared because of said plant. The assumption is that Adeficha is a hallucination of Seymour’s, because he seems to be the only one who can see this human-like version. Or, perhaps, Audrey 2’s outer-space provenance makes it possible to manipulate reality, making Seymour the only Earthling who can really see what’s going on.

Whatever the explanation, we’re presented with Audrey 2 as a definite person, and it remains that way through the end of the show.

Is this conceit an effective directorial choice?

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While I applaud creative divergence from the norm, I lean toward no. On one hand, Adeficha (who uses they/them as pronouns) is a skillful performer with a powerful voice and fiery stage presence; they are a highlight of the show. On the other hand, breaking the illusion of Audrey 2 as bloodthirsty outer-space vegetation somehow deflects the storyline away from its schlocky B-movie horror roots and more into the realm of gnarled psychological drama.

My feelings are those of an originalist, someone who has seen the show enough times to have its expectations and conventions branded on my brain. But to me, making the plant a central human character takes some of the fun out of the proceedings.

Along with Adeficha, another strong cast member is Adrian Ammsso, whose Seymour is a nice blend of gently nebbish and appropriately feisty. Ammsso’s clear, crisp vocals are very nice.

I’m mixed to negative on the rest of the production in terms of direction, acting, singing, choreography and costume design. Oritiz-Belcher seems determined to play against the usual tropes of the show. He sets it in a dystopian 1990s instead of the expected 1960s. That in itself is interesting, and I like the bleak undertones. But other choices don’t make sense to me. He casts a talented actor (Jack Landseadel) as Mr. Mushnik – Seymour’s grumpy boss (and later father) figure and owner of the florist shop – but curiously doesn’t age him. Landseadel is a terrific voice actor and delivers a full-on Mushnik patter, but he looks about the same age as Seymour.


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Briana Villanueva Hardcastle, as Audrey, has some good moments of emotional connection with the audience, but her voice didn’t always deliver the vocal strength the character needs in terms of force and pitch at the Sunday matinee I attended; there were a few sour notes. Thomas Hayes’ forte is his vocals, but he could use better comic direction as Orin, the nightmare boyfriend of Audrey, and especially as the trio of marketing opportunists in “The Meek Shall Inherit.”

The trio of street urchins serving as Greek chorus (Jessica Meredith as Crystal, Shelby Manley as Chiffon and Anysah Galvan as Ronnette) sounded tinny and unbalanced in the prologue and “Skid Row.” Individually, they’re good singers, but together they lacked the sassy cohesion and swagger the roles call for. I felt they were expending so much energy on Jacob Moon’s intricate, sometimes too fussy, choreography that they couldn’t bond as a trio. Their tentativeness set a tone for the rest of the show.

Costume design (by Annalise Escobedo Lyman and Moon) is uneven. Audrey 2’s far-out garb worn by Adeficha is fun and effective – including some of the wildest yellow boots you’ll ever see – but street-clothes-style costumes for some other characters, such as Mushnik, don’t feel purposeful. The script specifically calls for Audrey to wear the tackiest clothes imaginable, but the joke tailored to that tackiness didn’t land.

Still, the production has an effective scenic design (by Ortiz-Belcher and Nicolette C. Andersen), compelling lighting design (by Christina Martinez-McCollam) and, aside from difficulties with the trio, good sound design (Adrian Oceguera). And the various incarnations of the plant are ingenious, complete with opening-and-closing leaves that sort of remind me of an artichoke in a water ballet. With Adeficha’s sizzle and a rousingly choreographed ending number (the peppy “Mean Green Mother from Outer Space,” which was not an original song in the stage musical but makes a nice addition here) before the bows, this “Little Shop” comes to life in its final minutes even as the plant at the center of it all gorges on an expanding supply of human blood. That’s the end of the world for you.


Show info

‘Little Shop of Horrors,’ a Selma Arts Center production. 7:30 p.m. Thursday, March 31, 7:30 p.m. Friday, April 1, and 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 2. $21 adults, $19 seniors and students, $15 children under 13. Rated PG-13.

Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

donaldfresnoarts@gmail.com

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