Coronavirus (COVID-19) Update: All future performances of “Little Shop of Horrors” at the Candlelight Pavilion have been canceled.
Once again demonstrating its dedication to regional-theater brilliance is Claremont’s Candlelight Pavilion, which is currently running its production of the sci-fi cult classic, “Little Shop of Horrors,” through April 4th. As one of the all-time Off-Broadway triumphs, the Alan Menken and Howard Ashman musical has so much great material to chew on that it’s difficult to ruin even if the staging is skeletal and the performers are merely adequate. The Pavilion, however, not only pays tribute to the intrinsic dark-comedy charm of “Little Shop,” but goes the extra mile by casting performers who were born to play their respective parts. Suffice it to say, this version of the plant-based musical hits all the sweet spots, and connects with, if not entangles, its rapt audience.
The eccentrically entertaining story centers around Seymour Krelborn, a hapless young-adult orphan, who works alongside the object of his affection, Audrey, under the employ of the sometimes crotchety Mr. Mushnik at a struggling flower shop on skid row. Seymour comes into the possession of a curious plant reminiscent of the carnivorous venus flytrap, except this one — anointed “Audrey II” by Seymour in honor of his crush — begins to pose a body-snatching threat as it is nursed by its altruistic and naive protagonist. Having exponentially grown in size, the talking and bellowing Audrey II becomes a hit for both the shop and the intrigued media as Seymour gets closer to Audrey despite the fact she’s already in an (abusive) relationship with rebel-wannabe, Orin Scrivello, D.D.S. But just as Seymour’s life favorably turns around, Audrey II’s blood-sucking tendrils get flagrantly out of line.
The set, coordinated by Chuck Ketter, is directly from the national tour and is absolutely first-rate, just as it was for the Pavilion’s previous musical, “Man of La Mancha.” Mushnik’s flared-out flower shop is the focus here, with its dust-ridden, run-down brick-and-mortar tones, surrounded by the city’s grimy garbage cans and a stoop. It oddly feels comforting and inviting, lulling in observers into a site where alien world domination is launched without any hulabaloo at first. Director and choreographer Branch Woodman has an acute understanding of how beguilingly idiosyncratic this musical is on its own without trying to contemporize it. Even all these years later, both the Frank Oz-directed film and the stage spectacle are strengthened, not undermined, for having been a product of the 1980s. In this rendition, the cherished time capsule comprising an irreverent silliness and quirkiness are intact, and Woodman utilizes his performers’ characterizations and the laugh-out-loud bits to the fullest. Moreover, the lighting by Aspen Rogers of 4Wall Entertainment is worthy of acclaim for all the complex, varicolored cues, as are the costumes by Mark Gamez and The Theatre Company, especially the Audrey II props, for the vines of pseudorealism they weave.
The believability of the production rests on the shoulders, baseball cap, Chuck Taylors, and eyeglasses of Bob Moran, the perfect Seymour, whose wide-eyed and innocent reactions as the lead are just as essential as the suitably insecure delivery of his lines. Seymour, for all his good intentions, probably has a case of arrested development, and is a bona fide late bloomer when it comes to his own self-actualization and prospects. But that’s okay, because he is not just any nerd; he’s a genuine one, lifted by his do-good bashfulness as well as the desire for companionship and personal growth. Not to mention, what makes Seymour memorable here is that he remains just a regular, albeit campy, guy and doesn’t try to impress with vocal riffs and runs; he is singing from the heart in the rawest possible way, which Moran acutely internalizes and passionately delivers.
Tayler Mettra’s Audrey is the prototypically good-intentioned woman who sadly and uncomfortably finds herself mired in the routine of an endless cycle of detrimental relationships, her latest being the sadistic, bad-boy Scrivello, portrayed by Skylar Gaines. With a hint of a Brooklyn accent and a disarmingly high-pitched voice, Audrey, like Seymour, aims high in spite of limiting circumstances, looking for a way out to “Somewhere That’s Green,” where black eyes and bruises are forever left behind. And while Audrey can be a little ridiculous at times, she is grounded in her humanity, a balance that is superbly navigated by Mettra who also rouses with her delicate but powerful vocals. And when it’s time for the epiphanic and touching duet of “Suddenly, Seymour,” Audrey becomes just as much an audience favorite as Seymour himself.
Standing in the way of Seymour and Audrey’s fated union is the swaggering, impudent, and depraved doctor with shades of a diabolically rendered Elvis Presley, dressed in all black leather like the ’68 Comeback Special. Scrivello’s nitrous oxide-aided turpitude is so outlandish, and his conceitedness so dense, that we mostly laugh at him. Gaines’ depiction is noteworthy because, on one hand, he speaks with the gentlemanly diction of a Golden-Age movie star, and then, without warning, guffaws with an unrestrained mania. Without question, Gaines’ acting is so spot-on that he becomes the antagonist we love to despise, and then subsequently in Act II, he earns our admiration for playing a series of contrasting, fully realized auxiliary characters who aggressively tempt Seymour with fame.
Giving an underrated performance as Mr. Mushnik is Marc Montminy, who, besides precisely looking and acting the part, does his due diligence in further augmenting the show’s zaniness and heartwarming qualities, despite his persona’s ulterior motive to use Seymour for his exotic plant and the improved business it can bring his shop. Still, when Montminy enthusiastically performs “Mushnik and Son” with Moran, attendees will be hard-pressed to fight off a big smile in seeing these two characters’ alliance bloom.
As the voice of Audrey II, Jabriel Shelton boisterously growls and shrieks with ominous intent and yet resonates with a soulful method to his madness. The fine line between fun and terror is achieved by Shelton, as we want to boogie with the avaricious boogeyman, but we’re also gulping with trepidation as there is seemingly no end in sight to Audrey II’s trail of victims. Furthermore, Jeffrey Bonser’s puppetry of the center-stage and ever-burgeoning Audrey II is second to none, with an opening and closing of the green monster’s trap that synchronizes marvellously with Shelton’s vocalizations.
Last, but not least, Liz B. Williams (Chiffon), Alescia Ellis (Crystal), and Summer Greer (Ronnette) are invaluable supporting players as the chronicling street urchins. They are the stars under Douglas Austin’s musical direction, with their harmonic singing prowess coming through the speakers during the title song, “Skid Row (Downtown),” “Ya Never Know,” “The Meek Shall Inherit,” and much more.
By and large, the Candlelight Pavilion’s “Little Shop of Horrors” is a stellar display of botanical bravura, so much so that it more than satiates Southern California residents who will have no urgent need to book a ticket to New York to see the current Off-Broadway revival. Make no mistake about it: this production by the illustrious dinner theater is five stars, as it complements the scrumptious, multi-course victuals with an equally appetizing presentation of flawless entertainment.
For more information about the Candlelight Pavilion’s production of “Little Shop of Horrors,” please visit: