Vagabond Players’ “Little Shop” will grow on you

To say that I am a fan of the musical “Little Shop of Horrors” is to put it mildly. Since I first saw the film version directed by Frank Oz, I’ve come to know the catchy songs (Menken and Ashman), the quirky characters, and the surreal puppetry almost by heart. So, it’s fair to say I can be a tough audience for this show. That said, Vagabond Players’ recent production (directed by Matthew Davenport) is a comfortable delight. The performance, though flawed, ultimately succeeds thanks to some prudent production choices, and the enthusiasm of its two leads.

The plot follows Seymour Krelborn (Ryan Waechter), a wimpy assistant at a failing flower shop on Skid Row. His luck begins to change when he discovers a very strange and interesting plant and puts it in the shop window. Suddenly business is booming, and Seymour has even caught the eye of Audrey (Annie Arbuckle), his beautiful coworker. There’s only one problem; the plant, christened Audrey 2, has a craving for human flesh. Campy, gory madness ensues as Seymour attempts to keep the plant, Audrey, and his sanity in check.

Davenport (whose production roles include set designer, sound designer, and producer) has pulled off quite a lot with a limited budget. The set is suitably drab, and breaks up the small stage quite effectively. The lighting design (Matthew Piton) is utilitarian at first, but blooms with colour in the second act. As Audrey 2 swells in size, one can’t help but also be impressed with the puppets. The final iteration of the flytrap is large enough for actors to stand inside, which makes it all the more delightful when the jaws snap closed. Finally, Davenport has made several tweaks to the source material, adding lots of goofy stage business and extending comic moments. Some of these hit the mark spot on; however, others bog down the show. A few of the longer gags could’ve definitely been trimmed in the interest of maintaining momentum.

Annie Arbuckle and Ross Freisen in Little Shop of Horrors

Pacing and timing is perhaps the production’s greatest challenge. The singing is strong (musical direction by Julie Atchison), but the songs lack drive. The band seems to be working at a tempo that is too slow to infuse smaller songs like “Da-Doo” and “You Never Know” with the snappy energy they require. While the show is filled with creative, diverse choreography (Damon Jang), the movements are fulfilled somewhat dispassionately by the ensemble. Finally, there are many comedic missed opportunities; punchlines are delivered without punch, so moments that should be hysterical elicit mere giggles from the audience. It isn’t until the mayhem begins that the show finally stops dragging its feet as the plant, and the cast, begin to take ownership over the stage.

The strongest moment of the show goes unequivocally to Arbuckle, in her gently passionate rendition of “Somewhere That’s Green”. Arbuckle is a ditzy delight to watch, as every aspect of her character’s journey, from oblivious pep to tragic hopefullness, is handled with precision and heart. As her romantic counterweight, Waecheter brings great energy and enthusiasm. At times he strains a bit too hard to hit a note, but the overall effect only enhances his geeky charm. The chemistry between them is suitably awkward and sweet, and is a major factor in the redemption of  the show.

The rest of the cast fulfill their roles with competence. Ross Friesen is a lot of fun as the tyrannical Mr. Mushnik, and Thomas Lamont gets a few opportunities to work his tenor chops as Audrey’s scummy boyfriend, Orin. Meanwhile, Regi Nevada is utterly unique as the voice of Audrey 2. A part typically cast with a male voice, Nevada brings shades of Scarlett Johanssen in “Her” to the role, and her subtle seduction of Seymour was an unexpected pleasure.

It is clear that this show is created with love and respect for its B-movie roots, and by the time the cast closes the show with a charming tribute to the original 1960 film, it had won me over. For those who are looking for some simple Halloween fun, look no further than this show. Little Shop of Horrors is a show that will grow on you, if you just give it time.

Little Shop of Horrors runs until Oct 29th at the Bernie Legge Theatre. Ticket information can be found here.


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