Music by Alan Menken. Book and lyrics by Howard Ashman. Based on the film by Roger Corman with a screenplay by Charles Griffith. Directed and choreographed by Donna Feore. Until Nov. 2 at the Avon Theatre, 99 Downie St., Stratford. stratfordfestival.ca or 1-800-567-1600
Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s 1982 sci-fi musical comedy thriller Little Shop of Horrors ends with the repeated refrain “Don’t feed the plants”—a warning from the characters to stem (plant pun number one) the spread of a botanical alien invasion of Earth. But it felt more familiar at last night’s opening at the Stratford Festival, the second of two musicals directed by Donna Feore that opened this week, which I discovered after googling it when I returned home: “Don’t feed the” autofills with “trolls.”
There are many metaphors you can lay overtop the parable of a man-eating plant manipulating a meek, orphaned flower shop clerk named Seymour (André Morin) into feeding it the corpses of his murdered friends and foes in exchange for fame, success and the love of his co-worker, Audrey (Gabi Epstein), only to use that fame to spread its roots into “every home in America.”
On its surface, the plant, named Audrey II (voiced by Matthew G. Brown), was a double for the 1960s conception of the American Dream, offering an escape for Seymour and Audrey from the concrete slums of Skid Row, New York City, to the sleek, suburban utopia of bungalows, freshly-mowed lawns, new appliances, frozen dinners, Pine-Sol and I Love Lucy (as Audrey sings in the ballad “Somewhere That’s Green,” a mix of the show’s cynical sense of humour with a sweetness that foretells Menken and Ashman’s future at Disney).
Looking at the bigger picture, Audrey II is also capitalism, consuming the bodies of workers (the first victim, the sadist dentist Orin, played by Dan Chameroy, in a hammy performance that spoofs the worst parts of Elvis impersonators, is defined by his profession and its association with physical pain) who pose a threat to Seymour’s success. In this production, Feore also draws parallels between the growth of Audrey II and gentrification, trading in the garbage fires and vagrants in the show’s opening (set design by Michael Gianfrancesco) for apartment facades covered in flower boxes and bright curtains (projections by Jamie Nesbitt), and a trio of singing narrators (the show-stopping group of Starr Domingue, Vanessa Sears and Camille Eange-Selenge) with increasingly expensive-looking outfits, beginning in ponytails, button-downs and jeans and ending with glamorous green gowns and updos (costumes by Dana Osborne).
And Audrey II’s evolutionary desire to spread mirrors the never-ending urban sprawl and plots earmarked for development, development, development. Or, in 2019, the organism that feeds on attention and pain is the internet, but by now it has more than achieved its goal of getting into every home in America, and now its in the pocket of virtually every single person in world. And a warning for anyone devoted to the 1986 film directed by Frank Oz starring Rick Moranis and Steve Martin — whose popularity greatly contributed to the musical’s longevity within community productions and a 2003 Broadway debut — the musical has a notably darker ending; if you’ve succumbed to the temptation, if you’ve fed the plants, you’re worm food.
So why not have a blast in the meantime? Following the major success of last season’s cult classic The Rocky Horror Show, Stratford is no longer afraid of tapping into the silly side of musical theatre. In fact, there are more than a few echoes of that show in Little Shop, both directed by Feore, in its embrace of blood and gore and the self-aware strut of Chameroy, last year’s Frank N. Furter, only this time he’s (mostly) not in heels. At this point, Chameroy’s shtick is becoming as familiar to Stratford audiences as his drag fairy character Plumbum is to Toronto families at the annual wintertime Ross Petty Panto. There’s even an affectation that seeps into his role in Billy Elliot, over at the Festival Stage. That isn’t to say it’s out of place here — in fact, his exaggerated hip swinging and nitrous oxide mask on a retractable wire makes Orin the dentist even more vile, even as we’re reminded again and again that he’s physically and emotionally abusive to his girlfriend, Audrey. If only there wasn’t the feeling in Chameroy’s performance that we’re supposed to enjoy his time onstage instead of detest it.
As Audrey, Epstein’s charming Stratford debut is a relatively understated one; beyond baring her belting vocals, she resists turning Audrey’s inability to leave an abusive partner into a joke as the script sometime suggests. Her resignation is conveyed with a simple smile and a small shrug, but she doesn’t hunch her shoulders or play a victim or display any kind of inward hatred. She’s not dumb, and she’s not shallow; she’s doing what she can to get by. Her initial refusal to consider Seymour as a romantic partner is at once not an issue of self-esteem as the chorus says, but of an abused psyche under the patriarchy, which she ultimately can’t escape — even if says she found her green utopia. (Yes, it’s possible these future Disney writers began their careers with a story that’s feminist and anti-capitalist!)
Morin’s Seymour offers less to analyze — he’s an everyman with a leg up over his Skid Row neighbours, in that he at least has a job after being plucked from an orphanage by the flower shop owner Mr. Mushnik (Steve Ross). It’s great to see Morin in a starring role after memorable turns as the Messenger in 2017’s Bakkhai and Ariel in last season’s The Tempest, and he’s charming letting Seymour’s childish side out in his duet with Mushnik, “Mushnik and Son.” But in Morin’s performance, Seymour is almost too good at convincing himself to choose one act over another, his do-I-or-don’t-I anguish doesn’t linger for long enough in the runaway current of Feore’s production.
A choreographer before she was a director, Feore’s production never stops moving—Domingue, Sears and Eange-Selenge are doo-wop-fuelled motors that provide a ceaseless sway in the background of Ashman and Menken’s earworms, from the opening “Little Shop of Horrors” to the context-provider “Da-Doo,” to the final warning “The Meek Shall Inherit.”
Michael Walton’s lighting in combination with Nesbitt’s projections and Peter McBoyle’s sound leaves little room for distraction as you sing along with Laura Burton’s music direction. And, of course, there’s the green elephant in the room, the four Audrey II puppets of various sizes (built by prop master Ken Dubblestyne from Gianfrancesco’s designs), from hand-held to big enough to contain a human person (operated by Jason Sermonia, Henry Firmston, Evangelia Kambites and Jordan Mah) — these are beautifully-crafted co-stars that, with Brown’s voice, tend to overpower Morin.
At this point in time, it’s not realistic to think of nature leading to humankind’s demise instead of the other way around (really, wouldn’t we all prefer somewhere that’s green at this point?), but it’s fortunate that Stratford is learning to let its hair down and embrace the fun of Little Shop of Horrors. Because the flurry of dances, the spectacle of the puppetry, and the humour of this absurd tale is enough to distract one from thinking about the real dangers that our society poses — at least a giant, singing, bloodthirsty Venus fly trap doesn’t exist.