REVIEW: Little Shop of Horrors (La Costa Theatre)

My, What a Strange and Interesting Play!

 

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La Costa Theatre presents
   
Little Shop of Horrors
 
Book/Lyrics by Howard Ashman
Music by
Alan Menken
directed by
Dan Sanders-Joyce
Music direction by Ryan Brewster
at
La Costa Theatre, 3931 N. Elston (map)
through July 11th  |  tickets: $25   |  more info

reviewed by Keith Ecker

I have a confession. Little Shop of Horrors is my favorite musical of all time.

I have loved the play ever since I saw the movie version as a child. I own a VHS copy of the director’s cut of the film, which features an alternate ending that falls more in line with the play, and I have the Little Shop of Horrors Broadway revival cast recording, which for three months straight was the background music for my workout DSC_0494 routine at the gym. So it was with great excitement that I sat down at the La Costa Theatre, which sits above an auto shop, to see Chicago’s most recent rendition of this contemporary classic.

Overall, I can’t say I was disappointed. I think La Costa has planted the seed for an amazing production. But it hasn’t quite blossomed just yet. And if that’s not enough plant metaphors for you, I believe after a few more shows, this production has the possibility of growing into a four-star play.

Little Shop of Horrors takes place in skid row, a dilapidated, impoverished city slum. Mr. Mushnik (Peter Verdico) is the proprietor of an eponymous flower shop that, like most businesses in the neighborhood, is failing.

Mr. Mushnik employs the fragile Audrey (Ashley Bush) and the nebbish Seymour (Jonathan Hymen). Audrey dates a sadomasochistic dentist (Tom Moore) whose pastimes include riding motorcycles and domestic abuse.

Everyone’s life is pretty miserable until Seymour comes upon a strange and mysterious plant that he dubs the Audrey II (voiced by Brian-Alwyn Newland and controlled by puppeteer Paul Glickman). The plant’s mere presence creates a boon for Mr. Mushnik’s flower shop, and Seymour becomes a highly sought after celebrity.

However, Seymour harbors a terrible secret. The plant hungers, and the only thing that can satisfy its ever-growing appetite is human blood. And it demands that Seymour feeds it.

The acting is spot on. Hymen’s Seymour is the quintessential underdog nerd. He’s slouchy, he’s disheveled and he’s meek. Still, Seymour is a very passionate character, especially when it comes to matters of the heart and of ethical decisions, and Hymen transmits this with the required restraint.

Bush’s Audrey isn’t as much of a bimbo as other incarnations that I’ve seen, which is completely acceptable as Audrey isn’t stupid so much as she is incredibly insecure and self-effacing. This is a girl who honestly believes she deserves to be abused. But despite being damaged goods, Audrey is also a hopeless romantic, dreaming of one day living in a suburban home where the furniture is wrapped in plastic. Bush captures this hopefulness and hopelessness. It also doesn’t hurt that she has one of the strongest voices in the cast.

 

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I’m sure it must be very difficult to create a giant, man-eating puppet for the stage. But Glickman, who has years of experience as a puppeteer, has created a remarkable Audrey II. I was blown away by how a small independent theatre company managed to create such an amazing special effect for the stage.

There was a technical downside to the production. The sound quality throughout the play was at best adequate and at worst terrible. The balance of the vocals and the live music was completely off. Often the thump of the bass would drown out all of the singers. Even when no music played, the volume of the actors’ mics varied widely. I had hoped this would have been fixed by the second act, but, to my surprise, it was not.

Also, director Dan Sanders-Joyce didn’t do a very good job of spreading the action throughout the theater. The space is rather large, but much of the actors’ movements are relegated to a small part of the stage. This often leads to poor views for half the audience.

La Costa desperately needs to fix Little Shop of Horrorstechnical glitches. (I suppose you could say they need to nip them in the bud.) Otherwise, the company has well-crafted and entertaining production.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
 
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REVIEW: Beauty and the Beast (Broadway in Chicago)

A fractured fairytale

 

Liz Shivener - captioned

 

 
Broadway in Chicago presents:
 
Beauty and the Beast
 
book by Linda Woolverton
music/lyrics by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman
directed by Rob Roth
Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph (map)
through April 4th (more info | tickets)

reviewed by Keith Ecker 

Disney’s musical Beauty and the Beast may be a tale as old as time, but time has definitely taken its toll.

The current touring production, which is making a brief stop at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, comes across as, well, amateurish. Riddled with technical problems, it appears Disney isn’t even trying to spice up its usual schlock before serving it up to eager audiences.

Liz Shivener and Justin Glaser The musical follows closely to the animated feature’s plot. Belle (Liz Shivener) is the most beautiful girl in the village. Not so bad, right? The problem is she’s an oddball because she has an active imagination and enjoys getting lost in a good book. It doesn’t help that her father Maurice (Christopher Spencer) is an eccentric inventor.

The dashing yet brutish and egocentric Gaston (Nathaniel Hackman) has a thing for the lovely Belle. The only problem is that his extreme hubris is a huge turnoff to the lass, which only fuels the fire in Gaston’s heart even more.

One day, father/inventor Maurice ventures out into the woods where he is attacked by wolves (made possible through some fairly frightening puppetry, so frightening in fact that it terrified the little girl sitting in front of me to the point that she and her mother had to leave the theater). The old man seeks shelter in a castle, which unbeknownst to him is inhabited by a bunch of talking appliances and a Beast (Justin Glaser).

We all know where the story goes from here. The Beast makes a trade—Maurice for Belle. Slowly but surely the two opposites attract and lo and behold the magic spell that has been cast over the kingdom is finally lifted.

The only significant plot difference in the musical is that more attention is paid to the castle’s ensemble, which includes Cogsworth the clock (Keith Kirkwood), Lumiere the candelabra (Merritt David Janes) and Mrs. Potts the teapot (Sabina Petra, whose British accent is all over the U.K. map). In this version, the servants are slowly transforming into these objects, upping the stakes for the Beast to break the spell sooner rather than later.

Throughout the entire show, from the beginning to the end, there were issues with performers’ microphones. Cracks and pops would occasionally drown out dialogue or interrupt a melody. Normally I wouldn’t put so much weight on a technical issue like this, but it was never resolved throughout the two-hour musical. In addition, whereas most audiences might not notice if a microphone is temporarily tuned down too low, people sitting around me began to moan and groan with the more rustling and crackling we had to endure.

There was also a faulty light cue (Spoiler alert for anyone not familiar with the story.) The musical handles Gaston’s death in the most G-rated manner possible. It only alludes to him falling by showing him teetering over the ledge of a balcony. My assumption is that the lights are supposed to go down at the moment right before we see him fall. When I saw it, Gaston regained his footing, stared blankly out at the audience and then the lights went down.

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The actors were all decent, but there were no showstoppers. However, there were some impressive acrobatics, especially from Michael Fatica, who played Gaston’s right-hand man Lefou.

For a musical, there seemed to be a dearth of big numbers throughout the first part of the show. You would think that the opener “Bonjour” would be high energy, but, despite involving the whole cast, it seemed much less lively than the cartoon. The standout song was by far “Be Our Guest,” which was truly a spectacle, complete with dancing plates and forks and a tumbling rug. One of the other big numbers, “Gaston” was a miscalculated headache thanks to the incorporation of clinking metal steins into the choreography.

Small children who are fans of the cartoon will probably enjoy the show, granted they aren’t scared of some of the darker scenes, including the stabbing of the Beast. It may instead be the adults who are squirming in their seats, wishing they had just rented the cartoon instead.

 
Rating: ★★
 

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Chicago theater tidbits: Tom O’Horgan, Tuta Theatre, Rachel Rockwell, Oleg Bogaev

Tom O'Horgan's Wikipedia page Sheldon Patinkin, chair and collegue at the Columbia College Theater Department reminisces about about the late Tom O’Horgan, director of the original Broadway production of Hair. Sheldon Patinkin, worked with O’Horgan in the Playwrights Theatre Club in Chicago.  Read the article at the Chicago Reader’s Onstage blog.

Picture: Tom O’Horgan

aladdinExtended: Marriott‘s “Theatre for Young People” has extended their present production, Aladdin, through August 19th.  Directed and choreographed by Rachel RockwellAladdin features music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice, with the book adapted by Jim Luigs.  For show dates/times, go to Marriott’s website.

 

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Tuta Theatre hosts Reading of Oleg Bogav’s “Russian National Postal Service”

At 12 noon, Saturday, January 24th, TUTA headquarters are getting a whole lot more interesting. To help celebrate TUTA’s Chicago premier of Maria’s Field, in association with Chicago DCA Theater, playwright Oleg Bogaev will be coming all the way in from Russia. As an added bonus, TUTA is presenting a staged reading of Bogaev’s internationally acclaimed one act play: Russian National Postal Service, a rollicking and heartbreaking story of a lonely pensioner and the historical, popular, and other worldly figures of his imaginary correspondences. The reading, featuring actor Gary Houston, will be followed by a discussion with Oleg Bogaev about his work, his experiences, and the state of the art. Coffee and treats will be served up with this delightful event, and admission is FREE.

What: The Russian National Postal Service

Staged reading and discussion with playwright, Oleg Bogaev

When: Saturday, January 24th, 12pm

Where: The TUTA Loft, 2032 W. Fulton, Chicago, IL 60612

(3 blocks south of Grand, Just west of Damen)

How Much: FREE