Though film adaptations of popular musicals oftentimes miss the mark, there are a select few whose iconic renditions make bringing them back to the stage challenging. Do you emulate the film’s popular choices? Do you try a completely different approach? Can the Grease finale work without leather pants?!
Director L. Walter Stearns and the creative team behind Mercury Theater’s production of Little Shop of Horrors take the first approach, offering up a solid recreation of the well-known 1986 film. And while the resurrection of the nasally Ellen-Greene-Audrey-voice makes for a fun theatrical evening, the lack of reworking rouses some cringe-worthy moments. The revival suffers from being presented in this #MeToo era, and Mercury's production suffers from an adherence to the show's past iterations.
Short of directly altering the text (with permission, of course), taking creative risks with other elements, like casting and design, could certainly have mitigated these unsettling moments. The only performers of color in the company, for instance, take on the film’s traditional roles--Chiffon (Shantel Cribbs), Ronette (Adhana Reid), Crystal (Nicole Lambert), and the (mostly) unseen voice of Audrey II--which only reiterates the antiquated feeling permeating the production. Similarly, Audrey II manifests once again as a giant, unwieldy puppet. And though this is the standard prop piece for a Little Shop stage production, it was yet another element that begged for re-potting.
In contrast to the elements lacking a twenty-first century update, David Sajewich’s Dr. Orin struts onstage to offer a reprieve. Sajewich’s Orin is a pulpier, more-demented version of Steve Martin’s eccentric performance, and the take comes across as more modern.
An increased focus on changes like these, ones that don’t fully reinvent but certainly update the wheel, would have made this production stronger. Most of us, thankfully, don’t find domestic abuse funny anymore. But that doesn’t mean we can’t, with the right approach to these subjects, relish in the dark comedy and delightful songs in this piece. Unlike Audrey II, what Mercury’s production of Little Shop lacks most is growth. (Emily Schmidt)
Little Shop of Horrors continues at Mercury Theater through April 28. Info here.
The Hawk Chicago is included in TheatreInChicago's Review Round-Up.
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