Fort Worth — Be sure to keep all arms and legs safely inside the seating area because people are dropping like flies into a monstrous Venus fly trap in Jubilee Theatre’s out-of-this-world production of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman's Little Shop of Horrors.
Seymour (Gabriel Lawson) is a lowly flower shop boy. He’s berated by his boss Mr. Mushnik (Oris Phillips Jr.) and pines for his co-worker Audrey (Kyra McNeil). However, one day everything changes when he discovers an odd plant while out shopping. He brings it back to the shop, but finds the plant to behave peculiarly. It doesn’t respond to water or plant food and soon begins to wilt. Finally, by means of an accident where he cut his finger, Seymour discovers that it’s actually blood the plant craves. He then begins a tragic journey that will see him and the plant, named Audrey II (voiced by Major Attaway, puppeteered by Tyler Cochran, Keith Galloway Jr. and T.J. Leveritt), skyrocket to fame and eventually descend to a bleak ending.
Director Egla Hassan has put together an overall stellar show, and it all comes down to Lawson’s performance. He’s absolutely perfect as the hapless Seymour. He wears the mantle of nerdiness in a way that isn’t cliché, and his bumbling navigation of fame and love is endearing to the point that the show’s infamous ending is all the more painful. Lawson is flawless, physically and vocally, and is the glue of the entire show.
McNeil also impresses as the misguided love interest who only ever finds herself with abusive boyfriends. Her ability to display such a lack of perspective and yet maintain an overall sense of hope for her happy ending, like with Seymour, makes the performance all the more heart wrenching.
One of the most entertaining musical elements of the show is the presence of backup singers Chiffon (Samille Palm filling in for Synthia Green), Ronnette (Darby Branch) and Crystal (Mandi Green). These women fill the roles of vagrants on Skid Row before jumping into songs and raising the show’s awareness of itself and overall fun factor.
The one disappointment is only partly a disappointment. Abel Baldazo plays Audrey’s current abusive boyfriend, Orin the Dentist. It’s a fun role meant to be hammed up. For some perspective, Steve Martin played him in the film version of the musical. Yet, Baldazo doesn’t go all out. He plays the dentist as cooler and more smoldering than wacky. It doesn’t quite work. Especially considering that when not playing Orin, Baldazo plays every other speaking role that isn’t a primary character, often in zany, over-the-top ways. Every one of those characters is great, and yet, Orin underwhelms.
No one person is credited with the design of the various Audrey II’s used in the production. There are four or five iterations covering its growth from tiny potted plant to human sized monstrosity. So, some combinations of Hassan, set and technical designer Michael Pettigrew and costume designer Barbara O’Donoghue contributed to the design and execution of the plant. The plant itself, in all its iterations, is expertly executed. Attaway’s booming voice, perfectly suited for this part (he has played it in several local productions) and characterization of the role makes the whole package fiendishly delightful.
That said, there are problems that arise with having to coordinate such a large, technically demanding set piece. Pettigrew’s set, while impressive, is not ideal. The left side of the stage is the front of an apartment building. The right side is Mr. Mushnik’s florist shop. But, right in the middle, where the two sides connect, Mushnik’s shop juts out at an angle, effectively tilting the shop towards the right side audience. This is fine until the big plant appears. It is situated against the angled wall facing right as opposed to the left wall of the shop in the corner of the stage. This cuts off any good viewing angle of the plant from the left. And considering it’s the co-lead character, it’s a disappointing placement.
The only other technical note is that while the band, led by musical director Geno Young, is amplified, the actors are not. Despite Jubilee not being a very big space, it can be difficult to hear sometimes.
Quibbles aside, the show is as electric and crazily entertaining as it should be. The cast is solid and the plant is delightfully villainous. This show really is about messing with the old warning to be careful what you wish for. In this case, however, the show is everything you could hope for without all the messy bloodletting and world conquest.