My Gay Toronto - MGT Stage

A Little Shop of Horrors from
the little theatre of
grand ambitions

by Drew Rowsome Photos by Seanna Kennedy

Alan Menken and Howard Sherman created a lot of great scores but Little Shop of Horrors may be their most delightful. Free of the necessities of Disney, they were able to go dark; free of the restrictions of genre, they created their own pastiche based on girl group gloriousness with a soup├žon of Sondheim-esque intricacy. An off-Broadway sensation, Little Shop of Horrors has achieved a life of its own, as indestructible as the space-invading plants that are the evil black heart beating at the centre of the show. Little Shop of Horrors is a natural for the Lower Ossington Theatre and the cast and crew take this gift of tunefulness, humour and camp, and, with a lot of work, spit and polish, tuck it under their triumphant arms and sing and dance into a great success.

The book itself, full of pop culture references and wit, is cleverly designed to make a virtue of self-consciousness and any production could easily wink at the audience repeatedly to cover any flaws or budget shortfalls. LOT aims higher and creates a full-fledged musical that has to ask the audience to indulge it on only a few, and oddly endearing, occasions. The set is ambitious and works almost flawlessly, the costumes are slick, and the direction by Seanna Kennedy and the choreography by Natasha Strilchuk keep everything snapping along. But it is the performances that make Little Shop of Horrors work and LOT does the material justice.

From the instant Saphire Demitro as Crystal lets out the full-throated wail that opens "Skid Row," the audience knows it is in good hands. She and her girl group trio cohorts, Uche McKenze-Ashby and Elyse Evangelista, sing up a storm and strut their sexy stuff with gleeful precision while carefully stepping aside, like the best back-up singers a diva could hope for, to support the plot and characters as required. Ryan Jeffrey is a truly twisted sadistic dentist with an off-kilter bad boy sexiness that gives the character an unusual and disturbing (in a good way) resonance. He is also required to incarnate multiple other characters and, though the accents wander, the costume changes - one of the rare winks at the audience - provoke great hilarity. The role of Mushnik is rather thankless but Andrew Soutter grabs tight and hams up the dance number of "Mushnik and Son" with limber grace.

Kylie McMahon is kewpie-doll perfection as Audrey and plays the character with such skill that the thematic centrepiece "Somewhere That's Green" is simultaneously hilarious and heartbreaking. This is a cartoon character with soul. In Next to Normal McMahon proved she could tackle deep and difficult material, in Little Shop of Horrors she applies depth to a role that could be played quite successfully with broad comic strokes.

LOT jack/master-of-all-trades Mark Willett (Next to NormalShrek the MusicalAvenue Q) is a baby-faced bear of a Seymour, with a golden voice and an utterly endearing presence. This Seymour suffers on the cusp of his dilemma and when his love for Audrey is returned, it is an ecstatic moment. And his comic timing - double-takes, sly smiles and fluttering hands - is subtle shading that makes us understand Seymour's inner beauty.

But of course no production of Little Shop of Horrors will work without a believable, or at least semi-credible, man-eating plant. This production is blessed with the resources of Shannon Dickens who was already a virtuoso puppeteer (Shrek the MusicalAvenue Q) who can now add botanical impersonation to her resume. The plant becomes another character and after the first gasp of WTF?, the audience accepts the plant as a living, breathing, man-eating member of the cast. The voice by Jacqueline Martin is frequently overpowers the sound system and is at its best when seductive rather than strident, but the two creators work flawlessly in sync and the tiny glitches in the design just add to the humour.

Little Shop of Horrors is still finding its footing but the enthusiasm and skill being applied should make it another LOT perennial. Anyone convinced they know Little Shop of Horrors from the film version will be happily startled by the additional material and darker ending (including a hilarious sight gag finale that was audience rousing). The show is only scheduled to run until Sunday, January 12 so catch it quickly or hope that LOT brings it back for a much longer run.

Little Shop of Horrors continues until Sun, Jan 12 at the Lower Ossington Theatre, 100A Ossington Ave.