William Peace Theatre has all of the outward signs of a department challenging itself toward greater things. World-class guest designers, challenging material for students, and ever-increasing technical abilities show that Peace Theatre is ever-expanding. In the curtain speech before the show, I learned two interesting facts. One, Little Shop represents Peace University's largest performance to date, and two, this is the first use of the larger Kenan Recital Hall for a musical, utilizing their new sound system. And beyond a few hiccups in that sound system, Peace University presented a top-notch and indeed near-flawless production of the often challenging Little Shop of Horrors. While the show is perhaps a little overdone these days (having just received a production at Meredith last spring), Peace provides an engaging and professional evening for even the most casual theatre-goer.
A spoof of your typical 1950s B-sci-fi flick, Little Shop is the dark but flippant tale of a man trying to win the girl while tending to his murderous house plant. Seymour (Dustin Walker) is our hapless horticulture expert who loves gardening almost as much as he loves his voluptuous co-worker Audrey (Lindsey Sherrin), but alas she's already spoken for by her reckless and increasingly-abusive boyfriend (Tanner Callicutt). Meanwhile, the miserly Mushnik (Jarrett Bennett) threatens to close down his struggling flower shop, putting Seymour and Audrey out of work, if business doesn't pick up. But things are set to change when Seymour discovers a new breed of flower resembling a Venus flytrap that he dubs "Audrey II." The plant is a draw for customers and may be Seymour's ticket to success. But there's a catch: the plant feeds on human blood. This funny and twisted tale also functions as a parable for the dark roads we may force ourselves to take in order to attain our dreams.
Made a household name after the Frank Oz movie adaptation staring Rick Moranis and Steve Martin, the musical premiered Off-Broadway in 1982 with book and lyrics by Howard Ashman and music by Alan Menken; this is an adaptation of the 1960s comedic film of the same name. Ashman and Menken are perhaps best known as the award-winning Disney duo who've collaborated on a number of hits including Aladdin and The Little Mermaid. Inspired by 1960s Motown and doo-wop, the Asham and Menken music is still as hoppin' now as it was in the early '80s. Peace's production is led by acclaimed Broadway and Off-Broadway guest director Michael Bush, who guides his student cast toward confidant and professional performances.
The show's best vocals are provided by the Supremes-inspired Greek Chorus that narrate the story. Trea Brady, Ara'Via Moore, and Julie Davis performed as the dynamic trio and provided much of the doo-wop fun of the play. Dustin Walker and Lindsey Sherrin are paired wonderfully as the leads, both providing well-rounded performances, their solos being highlights of the production. Jarrett Bennett balanced the cast and was appropriately glib and sour as the greedy Mushnik. Tanner Callicutt appeared in several roles including Audrey's sadistic boyfriend. He gave a fun but sometimes unenthused performance that could have been improved by a little more comedic precision. DJ Curtis did his best Little Richie as Audrey II and even appeared as the occasional "wino" from time to time. The hidden stars, Melvin Gray and Luis Beltran, brought the Audrey II puppet to life, moving the puppet in line with Curtis's booming and enthralling voice.
Julie K. Ross' German Expressionist-inspired set, complete with off-kilter buildings and angular roofs, feels appropriate for the zany world of Little Shop. The city backdrop, showing a myriad of asymmetrical skyscrapers, gives a sense of height and grandeur, allowing the little flower shop to appear meek in the midst of the sprawling metropolis (not unlike our dear Seymour). The set effectively shows a down-on-its-luck flower shop on its last legs. The set spins to show the alleyway behind the shop. The spinning set makes for a nice effect but seems overused once the setting is established.
It's a well-done production all around. In the future I'd like to see Peace push itself to perform material that is perhaps a little more modern and a little less overproduced instead of being content with doing yet another Little Shop production. But until then, just remember: "Don't feed the plants!"
The run ends with a Nov. 16 matinee. See the sidebar for details.