Against a real-life backdrop of a global pandemic and climate catastrophe, the line in the prologue to “Little Shop of Horrors” about “the human race suddenly encounter(ing) a threat to its very existence” might not be a particularly welcoming start to a show.
But when it comes to this timeless musical romp, existential dread has rarely been so fun.
Whether you know all the songs by heart or are looking for an introduction to the show, you’re unlikely to find a more quintessential production of this campy horror musical than the one playing at the JCC CenterStage through May 22.
“Little Shop of Horrors” tells the Faustian fable of Seymour, a nerdy orphan working at Mushnik’s Florist, whose biggest hopes — finding fame, getting the girl of his dreams, and clawing his way out of impoverished Skid Row — start coming true when he feeds human blood to a peculiar plant with an insatiable appetite. This grim cautionary tale about pursuing personal gain at the expense of human life is set to a smart, catchy score. Composer Alan Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman, known for their Disney movies, draw musical inspiration from 1960s’ girl groups, gospel, rock and roll, Broadway pop, and even a little Jewish klezmer.
The premise is larger-than-life, and works best when, as in this production directed by Danny Hoskins, the actors embrace its cartoonish absurdities with earnestness and heart.
Some of that heart may come from this production’s backstory. CenterStage Artistic Director Ralph Meranto dedicates the show in memory of the theater’s founder Herb Katz, who died in March 2020, when the spread of COVID prevented his mourners from gathering to honor his life. The set nods to his legacy with a sign for Katz’s Tailor. In 1987, the JCC produced this musical with Meranto starring as Seymour and Katz playing Mr. Mushnik. Now, Meranto steps into the role of Mr. Mushnik with CenterStage Company Manager Marc Cataldi playing Seymour.
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- PHOTO BY JAMES PARATORE
- Herb Katz (left), JCC CenterStage founding artistic director, and Ralph Meranto, current JCC CenterStage artistic director, as Mushnik and son in "Little Shop of Horrors" in 1987.
From the moment Cataldi stumbles onstage in nerdy glasses, it’s clear he was cast for more than his CenterStage connection. His awkward but endearing nervousness immediately screams Seymour. Aside from Rick Moranis in the iconic 1986 film adaptation, it’s hard to imagine an actor more perfectly suited for the role. He also has the acting and singing chops to carry this demanding lead.
Likewise, Megan Colombo perfectly embodies Seymour’s flower shop coworker, and object of his affection, Audrey. Colombo resists the temptation to play Audrey as a ditzy blonde and instead plays her as a woman who does her best to get by, hiding her insecurities behind a forced smile. She sings “Somewhere That’s Green” with genuine pathos, despite the silliness of the ballad’s romanticizing of suburban life, including the longing to “cook like Betty Crocker and look like Donna Reed.”
Audrey and Seymour work for Mr. Mushnik, the cantankerous owner of the plant shop. Meranto plays him with delightful comic timing, especially when trying to capitalize on Seymour’s success — while hiding his disdain for the boy — by adopting him in “Mushnik and Son.” Audrey’s abusive boyfriend Orin is played by Rich Steele, who hams up the villainy of “Dentist!” with an impressive, almost slapstick physicality. Steele also doubles as side cameo characters, appearing onstage in clearly differentiated but c
onsistently amusing personas.
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- PHOTO BY STEVEN LEVINSON
- JCC CenterStage Artistic Director Ralph Meranto, left, plays Mr. Mushnik alongside Marc Cataldi's Seymour Krelborn in "Little Shop of Horrors."
One unfortunate aspect of the show is the way it traditionally centers white characters while the black characters — the trio of so-called “street urchins” who narrate in the style of a 1960’s doo-wop group — get relegated to comment on the story. The members of the trio do their best to add personality to the roles, coming across as concerned neighbors rather than unbiased narrators, and are played by some of the best singers in an already musically-strong cast. Jennel Bryce as Crystal and Yvana Melendez as Ronnette are vocal powerhouses. While Breyana Clark as Chiffon lacks their volume, she makes up for it in a soulful tone and sharp command of the choreography.
The most iconic part of this show is the giant carnivorous plant, who Seymour names Audrey II. This colorful puppet is voiced by Darren Frazier, whose singing is so commanding it’s clear why Seymour falls under his spell.
The cast performs on a dynamic set designed by John Haldoupis. A gorgeously painted sketch of Skid Row rises to reveal Mushnik’s Florist. At first mostly barren, with only a few dead roses, the shop becomes filled with flowers and leaves as the carnivorous plant becomes more powerful. By the final scene, vines conquer the whole stage as the cast urges the audience, “Don’t Feed the Plants.”
This production proves “Little Shop of Horrors” continues to resonate since its 1982 off-Broadway premiere. It is a darkly comedic romp that provides an infectiously silly escape.
Katherine Varga is a freelance theater critic for CITY.