Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s 1982 off-Broadway musical, “Little Shop of Horrors,” has proven to be sturdy. Its lively and funny score, compelling story (mixing romance, murder, and a carnivorous plant), and its vivid stereotypical characters all delight with their wit, craft, and amoral bent.
Audience members root for the human malefactor, Seymour, and have an ironic conspiratorial thrill, rather than an ominous, cringing chill, when one hears the phrase, “The guy sure looks like plant food to me.”
For all of its comic tone, “Little Shop of Horrors” can be performed to emphasize its dark side and show the menace of the voracious, megalomaniacal plant, Audrey 2. A production can also go all out for laughs.
The Bristol Riverside production heads down the middle of the road. Susan D. Atkinson’s staging doesn’t look for nuance or subtlety. It is about as basic a rendition as you can get it. It trusts “Little Shop’s” inherent knack for entertaining and lets its road-tested material do the heavy lifting while moving at a brisk pace and concentrating on broad comedy and sharp, if unsurprising, characterization.
Nothing about Bristol’s “Little Shop” is stunning or affecting. The confrontation scene between Seymour (Andrew McMath) and his employer (Daniel Marcus) has some dramatic tension, and Laura Giknis is a sympathetically vulnerable and loyal Audrey. But Atkinson’s production, while constantly bright and amusing, remains steady without becoming outstanding or special. It adroitly catches “Little Shop’s” winking comic style and driving musical energy, but it doesn’t illuminate or eke all of the potentials in the script and score. All is exactly as expected, nothing less, nothing more. Luckily, the expected is satisfyingly diverting.
One highlight is Giknis’s performance. The actress touches the heart. Her initial entrance, with Audrey sporting a black eye, makes audience members want to take care of and protect her. She shows a delicateness and refinement that runs counter to Audrey’s skid row slut image. She makes one believe Audrey has a heart of gold and is more a victim of tough circumstance and bad romantic judgment than a girl who is anybody’s for the asking. When Giknis sings about her dream life, a rather dull existence in a conventional suburb, you hear the sincerity and respond to Audrey’s winsomeness more than Ashman’s sardonic lyrics. When Audrey makes a sacrifice to benefit Seymour, Giknis turns the moment sad and touching in a way that overrides the eeriness of the scene and adds to its drama. It is Giknis’s combination of fragility and street wisdom that gives intensity to Bristol’s “Little Shop.”
Andrew McMath is a likable and less nerdy than usual Seymour. He dresses badly and has glasses bound over the nose by white tape, but he is clean and shows intellectual curiosity. McMath’s comparative lack of geekiness and affecting voice makes him a better match for Audrey that most Seymours. Like Atkinson’s production, McMath does what is required.
Elsewhere Daniel Marcus’s Mushnik is a little rougher around the edges and meaner to Seymour than is usual. One senses Mushnik is harried and beleaguered whether he is struggling financially or successful. Danny Vaccaro’s dentist is a bit overdone, trying too hard to be funny and remains a parody instead of conveying a human being with sadistic traits. Yet Vaccaro does ace the scene in which the dentist is overcome by nitrous oxide, and he has good moments as various hustlers trying to bamboozle Seymour. The “Little Shop” chorus is pert while singing or acting, and Berlando Drake is the stick out among the trio that harmonizes Skid Row events.
Bristol’s Audrey 2 symbolizes Atkinson’s production. It is just enough to fulfill “Little Shop’s” needs without being remarkable. The first sight of the plant is disappointing. It does not look beautiful or exotic, more an artificial fish whose head sticks out from a pot. Puppetry by Nate Golden is fine, and Carl Clemens-Hopkins provides the right bass voice, but Bristol’s Audrey 2 amazes and scares according to the script, not from its own volition.
Little Shop of Horrors, Bristol Riverside Theater, 120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol, Pennsylvania. Wednesday at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., Thursday, 7:30 p.m., Friday, 8 p.m., and Saturday at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Sunday, 3 p.m., through Sunday, June 8. $42 to $50. 215-785-0100 or www.brtstage.org.