Rachel Weinberg has been a freelance theater critic around Chicago for more than three years. She is currently pursuing a Masters of Science in Integrated Marketing Communications from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Prior to that, Rachel worked for two years in digital marketing at Goodman Theatre and spent a season as a Marketing Apprentice for Roundabout Theatre Company in New York City. You can read all of Rachel's reviews at RachelWeinbergReviews.com and find her on Twitter @RachelRWeinberg.
Ian Paul Custer, Michael Mahler, and Dara Cameron. Photo by Johnny Knight.
Review: LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS at American Blues Theater
By Rachel Weinberg
American Blues Theater’s triumphant LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS will have Chicago audiences clamoring to head downtown to Skid Row. This intimately staged production has a full sound (with music director Austin Cook leading a four-piece band, you can feel the vibrations of the bass in the floor) and provides an all-encompassing, fully entertaining spectacle. Grant Sabin’s set design presents a perfectly dilapidated Skid Row setting, with Mr. Mushnik’s decrepit, garish flower shop as the centerpiece—even some of the “bulbs” in the neon lights in the “Flower Shop” sign are missing, while the letters “L,” “O,” and “W” tellingly remain. And yet when ensemble members Jasondra Jackson, Camille Robinson, and Eunice Woods bust out onstage and begin the show’s title number as Skid Row’s “Greek Chorus” Ronnette, Crystal, and Chiffon, the immense joy in this production is deeply felt. This LITTLE SHOP fully inhabits the hilarious and heartfelt nature of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s exceedingly clever musical.
Director Jonathan Berry leads an ensemble of ten actors who bring LITTLE SHOP to life (with choreography by Darian Tene). The residents of this Skid Row are delightfully cast. As the nerdy, awkward flower shop employee Seymour, Michael Mahler imbues his performance with great depth of feeling—he’s endearing as the man who just wants to care for his co-worker Audrey and his new plant, the flesh-eating Audrey Two. His delivery of “Grow for Me” is full of emotion. Yet Mahler also makes clear the moral dilemma Seymour faces once Audrey Two begins to grow immensely (with the help of a little human flesh and blood) and brings the promise of great fame and fortune to this once-lowly employee at Mr. Mushnik’s flower shop. As Audrey, Dara Cameron makes a delightful counterpart to Mahler’s Seymour (the two are a real-life married couple). Cameron’s vocals are also magnificent, and her delivery of Audrey’s “I Want” song “Somewhere That’s Green” could not be better. Ian Paul Custer shines as Audrey’s abusive boyfriend, the sadistic dentist Orin Scrivello, D.D.S. Custer nails the maniacal evil laugh his character assumes while high on nitrous oxide—this is truly a star turn. Lorenzo Rush Jr. is stellar as the Voice of Audrey Two, and he delivers those infamous words “Feed me” with the exact kind of creepy power one would expect from a man-eating plant. His powerhouse vocals also suit the role well. Mark David Kaplan entertains as Mr. Mushnik, and he has an amusingly delirious take on “Mushnik and Son,” in which he plots to profit off Seymour’s new plant.
And while Rush powers the voice of the plant, Sarah E. Ross’s puppet work brings Audrey Two physically to life (with operation by Matthew Sitz). Four elaborate puppets are used in this production, each one more detailed and larger than the one preceding it as Audrey Two grows. Izumi Inaba’s costume designs capture the seedy, kitschy style of the Skid Row inhabitants. Highlights include a range of coordinating outfits for Jackson, Robinson, and Woods that have a large number of cultural references—and one amusing DREAMGIRLS send-up. And Inaba’s costumes for the show’s finale are simply inspired, but I won’t reveal the specifics here. Heather Gilbert’s thoughtful lighting design sets the tone of each of LITTLE SHOP’s musical numbers, with some creative neon flourishes.
American Blues Theater’s LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS truly sings. And while LITTLE SHOP makes clear that it’s never a good idea to feed the plants, audiences will find this production incredibly nourishing.
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