Grade “A” For “B” Satire: Telluride Theatre’s “Little Shop Of Horrors”

Telluride Theatre presents its own unique slant on the classic sci-fi rock musical “Little Shop of Horrors” live at the Palm Theatre Tuesday – Sunday, March 10–March 15. Showtime through Saturday is 8 p.m.; Sunday matinee at 4 p.m. Seating is limited since the audience is seated ON stage. To purchase tickets visit www.telluridetheatre.org/tickets or call 970-708-3934. For more information contact Sasha at 970.708.3934.

Big Audrey II

Stand back boys and girls or you may prick your fingers and bleed.

(And then Audrey Two or Twoey will smile her lascivious smile and croon seductively, “yum.”)

Telluride Theatre’s adaptation of “Little Shop of Horrors,” directed by Sasha Sullivan with a unique spin, retains all the sharp edges of the original productions – Roger Corman’s creepy 1960 cult flick, filmed in just two days (and featuring a young Jack Nicholson as a masochistic dental patient) and the 1982 Off Broadway musical by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman. But she loses the sappy happily-ever-aftering of the 1986 Big Hollywood Musical Production.

The show I saw in a polished dress rehearsal Monday night delivered a gritty, purely urban insolence that celebrates both B-movie pulpiness and the gutsy, jive-flavored pop of an earlier, more innocent era when groups like the Shirelles and the Ronettes were topping charts with doo-wop ballads about love and heartbreak. It is a sublime cocktail, a Bloody Mary spiced with satire, parody and a cautionary enviro tale set to a toe-tapping, Motown beat.

Set designer Melissa Trn, an FOS (Friend of Sasha) from L.A., re-imagined Skid Row, U.S.A, as a dark, dreary, downtrodden place, with Mushnik’s ramshackle flower shop at its beleaguered epicenter. The shop has one large window, which functions like a giant eye onto a sorry world where fire escapes offer bird’s eye views of the desperation of ghetto denizens on mean streets. It all boils down to cartoon squalor: Trn includes just enough details to underline the show’s macabre humor; but no unnecessary frills that might overwhelm the spills and thrills of the action.

In short, with a little help from her friends – Trn; musical director Ethan Hale; choreography by Cat Covert; lighting by Tree Priest; sound deign by Dean Rolley; make-up design by Colleen Thompson; technical director Colin Sullivan, who built the show; and assistant director Mitch MishkySasha’s “Little Shop” was pure vege-magic.

The director’s top-notch cast delivers the words of Ashman’s sardonic script with deadpan restraint and sincerity. They offer up the score like scouts delivering cookies, with an open-faced honesty and just enough enthusiasm to collect the change. There’s little mugging and no hard sell, a rarity in any adaptation of a Broadway classic.

“Little Shop” is a tragic-comedy, the story of a nerdy, orphaned, amateur botanist named Seymour, who hopes to find success and romance with the help of what becomes a giant man-eating plant, which he originally picked in a small pot from a Chinaman just after a solar eclipse. Seymour raises up the Faustian cruciferous carnivore, naming it Audrey Two after the girl next door. Trouble is, it’s not a girl. The creature is an alien devil, a perverse cross between the Frog Prince with its big amphibian head, an avocado, a shark and a large clam (particularly around the mouth).

Audrey Two, really a mutant Dionea muscipula (Venus flytrap on steroids), is played by a series of ingenious puppets provided by Imagined Creations, which grows larger and larger as the plant consumes more and more of the cast, setting new standards for monstrous egos from the Great White Way. Its voice in this production is Leo McNamara, who performed the role 20 years ago for the now-defunct Telluride Rep.

And Leo’s powers remain undiminished.

He still sounds like a cross between Wolfman Jack and the Big Bopper (of Buddy Holly fame). (You might remember: “Hell-lo Baby. This is the Big Bopper speaking. Chantilly Lace, a pretty face, etc.) His voice is also reminiscent of Levi Stubbs (of the Four Tops), who played Twoey in the cult film. And when Leo swings his first duet with Seymour, “Feed Me (Git It),” it’s not tough to understand as you are snapping your fingers and stomping your feet why the perversely dulcet basso has such a profundo effect on our protagonist.

Mushnik, Audrey, Seymour and Audrey II

Mushnik, Audrey, Seymour and Audrey II

Opposite Leo’s Audrey Two are Dino Ruggeri as the greenery geek Seymour and his love interest Anna Robinson (also the show’s vocal director) as Audrey.

Eyes wide with innocence, brow in a permanent furrow, slightly bowed shoulders and head jutting forward like a turtle, plaid shirt, red sneakers, Dino’s Seymour embodies constant consternation. An underdog and anti-hero from start to gruesome finish, he appears ready to snap back into his shell at the slightest rebuke or rebuff. But his character soars when he sings: Dino has a beautiful, clear, confident tenor voice that never falters – unlike Seymour. He is central casting in the role.

And Audrey fits Anna like a gardening glove. Packaged with curves, ditzy moves, and a Brooklyn accent, she plays the part with an endearingly innocent whorishness that is at once captivating and heart-warming. Anna is fey like Goldie Hawn of SNL, with a face as elastic as Carol Burnett. And that voice: it is pitch perfect and achingly beautiful everywhere, but especially in “Somewhere That’s Green,” the winsome ode to ’50s row houses and a Pine-Sol life in which she could “bake like Betty Crocker and look like Donna Reed.”

Dino and Anna also make beautiful music together. The perfectly lovable pair of all-American losers in love, a parody of Broadway musical sweethearts, sing the treacly duet “Suddenly Seymour Beside You,” yet another enchanting bouquet delivered from the show’s derelict flower shop.

Mushnik is Bob Saunders, who plays the crusty boss you love to hate, lording it over a world of dead plants and the dying souls of his workers, Seymour and Audrey. He plays the part with pathos appropriate to his Eastern European roots, and his character could not have been more venal, yet Mushnik’s toes fairly twinkled in his tango with Seymour in “Mushnik and Son.” A long-time thespian on Telluride stages, Bob/Mushnik never misses a beat.

Orin, the Dentist

Orin, the Dentist

Orin, the dentist, is Sam Burgess, who brings an appropriately, ahem, toothy, hard-smiling zest to the role of Audrey’s abusive boyfriend, managing to get most of the belly laughs. Let me just put if right out there: Sam is as convincing as Steve Martin was as the drug-addled sadist. In his Elvis-inspired “Dentist,” he proves he can move as well as he sings and acts. And I am not just shooting from the hip.

Seymour & the Chorus

Seymour & the Chorus

Crystal (Caroline Grace Moore), Ronnette (Shellanie Steiger), and Chiffon (Olivia Myerson) play the doo-wop street urchins, “Little Shop’s” Greek chorus. These street savvy ladies are charged with connecting the dots in the story line and hustling strangers, standing back as the world around them goes to pot. The sexy, smart trio are almost always on stage and often have to sing over, under, and around dialogue, but they manage to weave and bob, shimmy and shake, with dexterity, style, and grace thanks to Cat’s well-thought-out, sharp, clear, sassy moves, great choreography we find throughout the production. The harmonies are complex, but Crystal, Ronnette and Chiffon’s voices meld seamlessly, beautifully.

Telluride Theatre’s “Little Shop” is a tasteful, tasty theatrical morsel, in which every cast member owns his or her niche, including the hard-working band – Ethan Hale, Bobbie Shaffer, Tom Nading, and AJ Rekdahl – and virtually every number is a show-stopper.

Telluride should eat it up.

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