By Richard Ades
One of my favorite musical experiences of all time was Otterbein’s 2011 production of The Drowsy Chaperone, whose many perks included Preston Pounds’s portrayal of the agoraphobic central character.
Now Pounds is back as Seymour, the unfortunate plant-shop employee in Little Shop of Horrors. His presence guarantees that the movie-based musical will have a core of likable vulnerability that keeps it from drowning in silliness.
The presence of director David Hemsley Caldwell, an old hand at Otterbein musicals (including Chaperone), is another harbinger of good things to come. Caldwell keeps things fun and quirky while only occasionally allowing the proceedings to descend into self-conscious campiness.
With a book by Howard Ashman and based on Roger Corman’s 1960 cult flick, Little Shop is set in a Skid Row plant shop that’s seen better times. (Or maybe it hasn’t—it is located on Skid Row.)
After suffering through a particularly slow day, owner Mushnik (an extravagantly accented Kyle Hansen) threatens to fire both Seymour and fellow employee Audrey (a glamorously attired but flighty Madison Tinder). But then Seymour reveals that he’s discovered a strange plant—some kind of flytrap, he thinks—and has named it “Audrey II” in honor of the woman for whom he secretly lusts. Once word of the exotic plant gets out, the customers start flocking in.
Just a slight problem: Seymour learns that Audrey II thrives on one thing and one thing only: human blood. Is he willing to become a murderer in order to keep his new meal ticket alive? Pounds imbues Seymour with just enough humanity to clarify the struggle between his basic decency and his desire for success, which he hopes will finally impress the beautiful Audrey. Audrey, meanwhile, suffers from such low self-esteem that she seems incapable of escaping the abusive clutches of her sadistic boyfriend, Orin (Harry Sanderson).
Obviously, Little Shop of Horrors deals with dark subjects, but the overall atmosphere is as goofy and gleefully malevolent as Audrey II herself (a puppet voiced by John Henry Carter). Helping to set the mood is a slyly sexy trio of “Urchins” (Monica Brown, Haley Jones and Marina Pires) who serve as a sort of Greek chorus.
But what really keeps things lively is the score, a collection of songs by Alan Menken (music) and Ashman (lyrics) that capture the flavor of early rock, blues and folk. Hummable favorites include the Prologue (sung by the Urchins) and Suddenly, Seymour (sung by Seymour and Audrey). Both the solos and the harmonized numbers are nicely handled by the cast and the offstage band led by Dennis Davenport.
Rob Johnson’s clever and realistic set, Andy Baker’s mock-scary lighting and Julia Ferreri’s playful costumes add to the entertainment value of this drolly bloodthirsty musical comedy.
Otterbein Summer Theatre will present Little Shop of Horrors through July 27 at Cowen Hall, 30 S. Grove St., Westerville. Performances are at 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday (July 14 only), plus 8 p.m. July 18 and 2 p.m. July 19. Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25. 614-823-1109 or www.otterbein.edu/drama.