‘Little Shop of Horrors’ delightful at Cleveland Play House
By Bob Abelman
The Cleveland Play House doesn’t often stage musicals and, when it does, most serve to tell the life story of legendary singers like Mahalia Jackson, Woody Guthrie and five guys named Moe.
It is the exception when the CPH braintrust chooses a mainstream musical. It is rarer still when they boldly color outside the lines and stage something as outrageously campy and hilariously quirky as Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s “Little Shop of Horrors.”
The show is sown from the seeds of Roger Corman and Charles Griffith’s low-budget, nonmusical 1960 movie about a meek skid row flower shop clerk named Seymour who discovers a mysterious man-eating plant that magically transforms his life in exchange for the lives of his acquaintances.
The musical comedy played Off-Broadway for five years in the 1980s, was made into a star-studded feature film in 1986, and had a short-lived Broadway stint in 2003.
The thing is, the CPH doesn’t resort to “campy” and it doesn’t settle for “quirky,” not with a Tony Award on its mantel and the words “stimulate as well as entertain” in its mission statement.
And so Amanda Dehnert was invited back to Cleveland to direct, choreograph and musical direct “Little Shop of Horrors.”
In 2007, Dehnert spearheaded an astonishing, streamlined CPH production of “My Fair Lady,” as well as a remarkably smart, intimate and dark staging of “Man of La Mancha.” Her recipe for success in “Little Shop of Horrors” — and this is a very successful production — is the same as for those more straight-laced shows: gather exceptional New York talent, stir vigorously and serve while hot.
While many musicals rely on talented singers who also act, the cast of “Little Shop of Horrors” consists of talented actors who also sing. Fine acting adds dimension to already interesting characters, more meaning to the musical numbers, and a rich layer of intricacy to a show most often produced without one.
Ari Butler’s Seymour is a lovable nebbish whose driving traits are effectively communicated through insecurity and social ineptitude rather than the creation of easily identifiable but highly stereotypical shortcuts. This Seymour comes across as authentic and accessible, which allows the self-assuredness he slowly acquires by way of Audrey’s admiration and the extraterrestrial plant’s mind-melding abilities to seem authentic as well.
As Audrey, Seymour’s blond bombshell colleague and love interest, Lauren Molina does not allow the character’s cleavage or thigh-high skirts to define her. Instead, the actress attaches piercing vulnerability to her character’s low self-esteem and compassion to the comedy, which repeatedly breaks your heart. And she wins your heart during the beautiful solo “Somewhere That’s Green,” where Audrey dreams of a life far away from Skid Row, and in an astounding rendition of “Suddenly, Seymour,” when she realizes that her dream is incomplete without a good man.
Joey Taranto is flat out hilarious as Audrey’s sadistic dentist-boyfriend and eventual plant fodder. While Orin is meant to be played over-the-top, as are the wonderful walk-on roles that Taranto takes on in disguise and to perfection, the actor never loses sight of the director’s more lofty creative vision for this production and keeps it all in check.
And while Seymour’s boss, Mr. Mushnik, can be too easily underplayed and get lost amid Orin’s antics, Audrey’s adorability and the man-eating plant’s tongue-in-cheek (or is it stamen-in-pistil?) asides, Larry Cahn — a wonderful veteran actor with superb comic timing — never lets that happen.
In addition to casting fine actors who sing, Dehnert found musicians who act so that the onstage band doubles as Skid Row street urchins. Kate Ferber on keyboard I, Alanna Saunders on keyboard II, Hallie Bulleit on bass, Brittany Campbell on guitar, and Injoy Fountain on drums provide musical accompaniment and narrate the show’s storyline by way of soulful R&B harmonies and a splash of choreography. They are delightful.
They are also a cause for distraction, for their being in the world of the play as well part of its creative construction makes it as hard to get completely lost in this performance. The same goes for allowing Eddie Cooper to be clearly visible while providing his magnificent bass-baritone voice of the man-eating plant (which is masterfully manipulated by hidden puppeteer Kev Abrams) and having a headset-toting crew member running on stage each time the two-story exterior of Mushnik’s flower shop needs to swing open to reveal what’s inside.
Such disregard for concealing elements of artifice doesn’t contribute to the storytelling, although the dynamic Cooper is awfully fun to watch. And it seems inconsistent with scenic designer Philip Witcomb’s admirable efforts to create a believable Skid Row, albeit one infused with a playful palette and Brian Gale’s melodramatic lighting that nicely parodies sci-fi horror sensibilities.
But these things are easily outweighed by all that this production does right, leaving you hoping as the house lights come on that the CPH dares to color outside the lines a little more often and a little bit wider. CV
WHAT: “Little Shop of Horrors”
WHERE: Allen Theatre, 1407 Euclid Ave., Cleveland
WHEN: Through Feb. 7
TICKETS & INFO: $20-$100, call 216-241-6000 or go to
Bob Abelman covers theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman.3
Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News in January 17, 2016.
Lead image: Ari Butler, from left, as Seymour, Lauren Molina as Audrey and Larry Cahn as Mr. Mushnik in “Little Shop of Horrors.” | PHOTO / Roger Mastroianni