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Tuesday, 23 July 2013 00:33

This 'Little Shop' delivers a big (season) finale for Stray Dog Theatre

Written by Tina Farmer
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This 'Little Shop' delivers a big (season) finale for Stray Dog Theatre
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Stray Dog Theatre closes its tenth season with the deliciously twisted musical "Little Shop of Horrors." One of the delights of this musical is that even though we know the story, the show, when done well, feels fresh. As usual, the company does not disappoint with this production, adding a touch of earnest to the inside jokes and dark humor inherent in the original script.

Based on the 1960 Roger Corman movie of the same title, with book and lyrics by Howard Ashman and music by Alan Menken, the show is filled with campy references, both visually and in the script, to b-movie culture.

Audrey 2, everyone's favorite man-eating plant, is appropriately over-the-top in her (its?) voracity. Seymour, the shy, nerdy future botanist, is somehow sad and hopeful all at once. Audrey (the first) is brash but not broken, lacking self-confidence and playing recklessly with her heart of gold. Their love story plays out on the gritty streets of skid row, somewhere, USA; but it's a heightened cartoon-like gritty, narrated in musical numbers with a touch of macabre humor for good measure.

The company's designers and technical crew know how to use every inch of their space, enhancing the overall production in both subtle and overt ways. From the appropriately shabby, yet incredibly detailed, stage design to the brief and efficient scene changes to the personification and animation of Audrey the plant at every size, the technical aspects of the production perfectly complement the characters and action on stage. Artistic director Gary F. Bell and the entire technical crew deserve praise for focusing on the quality of design and its relation to the space in every show they produce.

Additionally, the crew, under stage manager Justin Been and assistant stage manager Max Treutelaar, work together remarkably well, with nearly seamless transitions. But, it's the actors, including Audrey 2, voiced with a chortle and snarl by Jeremy Sims, who keep the audience fully engaged and laughing from the opening number through the curtain call.

Ben Watts is splendidly imperfect as Seymour, his voice cracks here and there both when he sings and speaks, effortlessly wavering between confidence, fear and reticence. Watts reveals Seymour's insecurities and weakness in the little moments, and his comic reactions and sense of timing keep us watching to see just where he'll go next. His physical bearing and awkward, self-conscious mannerisms flow through the character, and are further revealed in an occasional stutter or a blush. The result is a truly sympathetic performance and a uniquely flawed hero you can't help but root for.

Lindsey Jones is the perfect match to Watts. Her Audrey is both beguiling and wistful throughout her struggles, never making any excuses and showing an endearing quality that makes you want to care for her. Jones also makes smart choices, a credit to both the actress and director Justin Been, and underplays some of the more dramatic character moments, solidifying sympathy with conviction. Jones may also have the purest voice in the cast and she uses it quite effectively, compelling us to listen and encouraging us to do so without judging. It all works together to ensure that audiences find her likeable, not pitiful. That's no small task, either, considering the lack of depth in her character.

The two leads get excellent back up from the chorus of Chiffon, Crystal and Ronnette, played to the hilt with girl band harmonies and the best costume changes in the show by Jamie Lynn Marble, Maria Bartolotta and Mark Saunders, respectively. They breeze through exposition and transitions with ease, leading the audience along without stealing focus. As the chorus, the three seem to fully and gleefully commit to the "back-up singer" role. The time spent working on Marble's choreography was evident, and only enhanced by the familiarity the three managed to convey. Christopher Brenner's Mr. Mushnik and Keith Thompson's Orin Scrivello, DDS, also turn in strong comedic performances. The art here is the ability to portray the overly broad stock characters without coming across as a caricature, and the show largely succeeds in straddling that line.

There were a few moments when the backing band seemed to overwhelm the singers, causing them to lose their notes, but I'm confident that these glitches will be ironed out as the run continues. This fast-paced show is light on story, but big on laughs, resulting in a perfect bit of summer entertainment.

Stray Dog Theater's production of "Little Shop of Horrors" runs through August 3rd at the Tower Grove Abbey. For more information, visit www.straydogtheatre.org or call 314-865-1995.

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