Review: "Little Shop of Horrors" at Stratford Festival

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  • Joe Szekeres, Chief Toronto Critic

Stratford, ON - We need The Stratford Festival’s production of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s musical sci-fi spoof right now.  A little wacky, escapist fun is good for the soul and, under the supreme direction and choreography of Donna Feore and sublime music direction of Laura Burton, this ‘Little Shop’ takes us away for two- and a-bit hours to be thoroughly entertained from the score’s first note.

‘Little Shop’ is a sweetly bizarre love story set amid its sci-fi premise. Shy florist clerk, Seymour Krelborn (Andre Morin) is smitten with the ditzy, bimbo, cutie kewpie doll Audrey (Gabi Epstein) all the while trying to hide their affection from the store’s gruff owner, Mr, Mushnik (Steve Ross). Audrey is dating a sadistic dentist, Orin Scrivello (Dan Chameroy). Seymour has acquired a large Venus flytrap plant and an eclipse of the sun makes a weird plant appear.  Seymour names the plant after Audrey. Strange things then begin to happen after the plant begins to grow at an incredibly haphazard rate.  Much of the action is commented on by three do wop singers, Ronnette (Vanessa Sears), Crystal (Starr Domingue) and Chiffon (Camille Eanga-Selenge).

Skid Row never looked so visually and horrifically appealing.  Jamie Nesbitt’s Projection Designs capture the attention as soon as you sit down and look at the stage from the smoking car that’s on fire to people waving from the windows in this down and out section of town. Dana Osborne’s colourful costume designs shine brightly against the grimness of this squalid environment.

Michael Gianfrancesco’s set design of Mr. Mushnik’s florist shop is deliciously cramped and seedy looking thanks to Michael Walton’s lighting design.  I liked many of the specific minute details right down to the crooked ‘N’ on the store’s marquee sign. A clever use of a fire in a garbage can before the performance begins to remind us to turn off our cell phones and all things that make a noise is an effective reminder.

Vocally this cast sounds terrific from start to finish. I try to be cognizant of the fact if I can hear every word sung, and I am happy to report that sound balance was nicely achieved in many of the full company numbers. So much of the fun stems from being able to hear the words in the songs and I wasn’t disappointed in the least. Ms. Sears, Ms. Domingue and Ms. Eanga-Selenge are in fine form and look fantastic while they comment on the plot’s action before them.

Last summer I had the golden opportunity to see Mr. Chameroy as the smokin’ hot Dr. Frank-N-Furter in ‘Rocky Horror’. Here, his Orin Scrivello revels deliciously in every single minute he inflicts physical pain in whatever way he can. As the grumpy Mr. Mushnik, Steve Ross becomes a teddy bear as he watches his store’s profits climb on account of Audrey II’s popularity. Matthew G. Brown’s smoky, soulful voice of Audrey II combines just the right amount of sexual tension and energy with the inevitable smell of death which hangs palpably in the air.

Keep an eye out on future Stratford companies as I can see Andre Morin and Gabi Epstein as members who will continue to grace the stages of the Festival.  Here, their work as the nerdy Seymour and beaten Audrey are wonderful.  Their vocal duet ‘Suddenly Seymour’ soared clearly into the rafters of the Avon Theatre. Mr. Morin’s pleading to Audrey II in ‘Grow for Me’ stole my heart as I continued to root for the underdog. Ms. Epstein’s work in ‘Somewhere That’s Green’ is so incredibly schmaltzy that it endears Audrey even more to us.

Final Comments: I attended a matinee performance with several schools in attendance and wondered how it would go over with the students. I was quite impressed with their behaviour as they were attentive and, most importantly, enjoyed themselves immensely.

In her Director’s Note, Mrs. Feore writes, “Audrey II…offers fame and fortune but at an exorbitant cost…it’s asking for blood and blood is life so…it’s going to cost you everything.”

It’s worth the cost of a ticket to see this ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ before it closes.

‘Little Shop of Horrors’ runs to November 2 at the Avon Theatre, 99 Downie Street, Stratford Ontario. For tickets please visit www.stratfordfestival.ca or call 1-800-567-1600.

Running time is two hours and ten minutes approximately with one intermission.

Photo of Gabi Epstein and Andre Morin by Chris Young.

The Cast: Andre Morin, Gabi Epstein, Steve Ross, Dan Chameroy, Vanessa Sears, Starr Domingue, Camille Eanga-Selenge, Matthew G. Brown, Jason Sermonia, Henry Firmston, Evangelia Kambites, Jordan Mah, Jason Sermonia, Scott Beaudin, Marcus Nance, Blythe Wilson

Producer: David Auster; Director and Choreographer: Donna Feore; Music Director: Laura Burton; Set Designer: Michael Gianfrancesco; Costume Designer: Dana Osborne; Lighting Designer: Michael Walton; Projection Designer: Jamie Nesbitt; Sound Designer: Peter McBoyle; Fight Director: Anita Nittoly; Vocal Arrangements: Robert Billig; Orchestrations: Robert Merkin;