My visit to Hale Center Theatre last week marked the fifth production of Little Shop of Horrors I've seen in a decade — no surprise there, as this show is a musical theater staple, trotted out by Equity houses, children's theaters and everything in between. The revelation is that this may well be the best version of the Alan Menken musical I've seen so far.
This tuneful comedy gem about a schlubby loser who breeds a carnivorous plant that he names after the girl he loves features an ear-hugging score by Menken and enough campy pop music references to choke a mule. Howard Ashman's story requires a load of energy from a cast that can sing, move, and sell unsympathetic caricatures that we love, and director Cambrian James has found those actors. With direction that's secure and surprisingly refined, he's created a relentless sitcom that practically sparkles. James' choreography is similarly impressive: energetic, expressive, and neatly tailored to the presentational style of the piece, it forwards the nonstop motion of an absurd plot that most of us can recite in our sleep.
Based on schlockmaster filmmaker Roger Corman's 1960 black comedy of the same name, Little Shop celebrates Motown and doo-wop pop in a story that makes randy reference to sadism, murder, and kinky sex. Seymour is a sad sack who works in a failing flower shop on Skid Row. He's in love with Audrey, a co-worker whose boyfriend beats her up. Just as everything's turning to mulch, Seymour's potted plant starts eating people, and the real fun begins — thanks, in this case, to some fine performances.
Chief among these is Chad Campbell, whose stage presence in the lead is bested only by his fine voice. Alaina Beauloye is as hardworking as she is charismatic as Audrey, a role I often find too broadly played. Beauloye knows that the secret of a great Audrey lies in simpler things: her exaggerated Brooklynese and shy affection for Seymour. And while they're often the weakest link in any production of Little Shop, the trio of doo-wop singers who haunt Skid Row are, in the Hale Center production, charming scene-stealers, thanks to some stunning vocal chops and smooth dance moves.
Hale's plant puppets are, unfortunately, a little too puppet-y: Audrey II too often appears to be a guy in an office chair wearing a plant suit. But I have no other quibble with Hale Center's sturdy Little Shop of Horrors. Summertime in Phoenix is a world of unreliable pleasures, and the care taken in polishing this version of a re-run is especially nice.