It’s always nice to see a beloved musical theater classic given a few little new moments here and there in a production; it spices things up nicely, and means that, as a reviewer, I’m wrapped up in the story all over again, instead of comparing the production in front of me to numerous other interpretations of the same material I’ve taken in over the years. Off-Broadstreet’s production of “Little Shop of Horrors” has exactly that fine touch. It’s a solid presentation of one of the best-loved shows of the last 30 years, with enough delightful little moments and flourishes to feel like it’s wholly owned by Hopewell’s popular dessert theater.
There’s a good chance you’ve seen the show before or the mostly excellent (excluding the awful changed ending!) 1986 film. Just in case: Seymour Krelborn (Jim Petro) is an assistant at a Skid Row flower shop in 1960 New York City. He works for the hapless Mushnik (Tom Bessellieu) and pines for his co-worker, the plucky Audrey (Vicky Czarnik), who has her own problems in the occasional spousal abuses of her biker-dentist boyfriend, Orin (Steve Lobis). Everything changes when a total eclipse of the sun leaves Seymour with an exotic new plant, Audrey II (sung by Barry Abramowitz, operated by Isaiah Davis), that makes the shlubby little store the talk of the town. Of course, the plant subsists on human blood, and pretty soon Seymour is weighing the pros and cons of murder against his newfound fame. The whole thing is wrapped up in excellent doo-wop tunes by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, and is told with pitch-black humor and verve. Naturally, it’s one of the most-performed modern musicals in community theaters nationwide.
For the most part, the cast acquits themselves nicely. Tappany Hochman, Danielle Shinder, and Elizabeth Rzasa do fine work as our Greek chorus/narrators/street urchins/soul-music goddesses, and shine brightest when given the opportunity to show off their individual personalities. Bessellieu’s Mushnik takes on a kinder edge than is usually presented and makes his inevitable confrontation with the plant’s jaws a little less satisfying and a little more melancholy than I’m used to. Steve Lobis handles Orin with the right degree of menace and mirth, and a handful of other parts show off his charm and sparkle elsewhere. The Seymour/Audrey II relationship has a fun edge of a-boy-and-his-dog palling-around prior to its murder spree; it’s a neat twist and one that caught me off-guard, and it’s a tribute to Petro’s genuine affection for the plant and tactful puppetry by both Petro and Isaiah Davis. The set and lights are minimalist and well-presented, letting the actors do their work. It’s clear that a good deal of thought was put into how the actors interact with their environment and each other.
This show definitely has a star, however, and it’s Vicky Czarnik. Audiences are probably used to seeing Audrey as a wide-eyed innocent desperate for one good guy in her life, a sort of damsel-in-distress with more than a little bit of a scuffed up sheen. The problem with the part is that Ellen Greene’s star turn in the original production and film is legendary, and it’s easy for performers to just fall into step with the interpretation. I’m pleased to report that Czarnik’s taken a different path here, and it’s a joy to watch. Grounded, beleaguered, and well-shaded, her performance of Audrey almost belongs in a Tennessee Williams play, for all of its little moments and furtive glances. That she’s got the vocal chops to back up the demands of the part is gravy on top of her naturalistic style. For the first time perhaps, in umpteen viewings of various productions, I actually saw Audrey as more than a caricature and a foil for our male lead, and the kudos for that rest squarely on Ms. Czarnik’s shoulders. It’s worth attending this production to see her work, alone.
Of course, there are a bunch of reasons to take in “Little Shop.” It’s a handsome, well-put-together take on a show that deserves its star in the musical theater canon, and the sweetness of the included dessert more than makes up for the bittersweet tang of the show’s black comedy vibe. It was evident from the near-capacity house at this weekend’s performance that many members of the audience hadn’t seen the show before and were enjoying this capable production as newcomers to the work. It was refreshing to see, and I hope that those of you who are lovers of the show find time to attend and bring a set of fresh eyes with you as a date.
“Little Shop of Horrors,” Off-Broadstreet Theater, 5 South Greenwood Avenue, Hopewell. Through Saturday, July 23. Musical comedy about a blood-thirsty exotic plant in a skid row flower shop. Jim Petro of Hamilton as Seymour and Vicky Czarnik of Hopewell as Audrey. Dessert included. $27.50 to $29.50. 609-466-2766 or www.off-broadstreet.com.