It’s hard to imagine what 18th-century poet and playwright Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, leader of the German Romantics and major contributor to the Sturm und Drang movement, would think of Little Shop of Horrors. Would he appreciate the parallels between his Dr. Faust and a 1960 Roger Corman B-movie about a downtrodden florist’s assistant who makes a pact with a man-eating plant? Or would he whimper in abject Teutonic misery, sorry he’d ever been inspired by a folkloric puppet show to write a play that would eventually lead to a hit show (and then another movie) full of carnivorous puppets and ultra-catchy songs rooted in ’50s and ’60s pop music?
Whatever Goethe would think, it’s hard for me to be objective about Little Shop. Seeing the stage version when it opened off-Broadway in the early ’80s is one of my happiest memories of that decade. Ellen Greene as the helium-voiced Audrey, the Greek chorus of sassy doo-wopping street urchins, immortal moments like the one where hero Seymour Krelbourn tries to talk himself into turning an evil dentist into plant chow by belting out “Now, for the girl! Now, for the plant!” — Little Shop was the weirdest thing I’d ever seen on stage, and I loved it. How else to explain the unsavory spectacle, twenty years later, of a hardened critic sitting in a tiny Pleasanton theater in the middle of an office park, singing along under her breath? With a book by Howard Ashman and lyrics by Alan Menken (who would later write The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin for Disney), Little Shop is nearly as irresistible as the Audrey II, the avocado-Venus flytrap cross that seduces poor Seymour into feeding it first his own blood and then a few not-so-innocent bystanders.
Fortunately, the Pleasanton Playhouse show is solid for an amateur production. While the acting’s quite a bit campier than Ashman intended, the singing is excellent, particularly from the urchin trio of Crystal, Ronette, and Chiffon (Mema Mataban, Nicole Julien, and Sara Barreto). Tania Johnson as Audrey and Tomas Theriot as Seymour also shine vocally, getting a lot of honest emotion into the ballads “Somewhere That’s Green” and “Suddenly Seymour.” The acting, however, is less reliable. John Sellen, as Mr. Mushnik, toys with then abandons a Yiddish accent, while Theriot, upon accidentally losing his mic on the night I saw the show, made a clown moment of getting it back on. Matt Davis, as Audrey’s “semi-sadist” dentist boyfriend, is the strongest actor, working the sex angle for all it’s worth as he straddles a helpless patient, dull pliers aloft.
If the stage version leaves you bloodthirsty for more, the genuinely strange Corman version is worth seeking out, especially for Jack Nicholson’s cameo as a masochistic dental patient (the role Bill Murray would play twenty years later in the 1986 film). Corman shot his film in two days, and it shows; the whole thing has a headlong quality. The 1986 Frank Oz film is very pretty, although it’s missing both important plot threads and songs like “Now/It’s the Gas” and “Don’t Feed the Plants.” It’s also burdened with the execrable “Mean Green Mother from Outer Space,” inexplicably nominated for an Oscar. Worst of all, if you’re a purist, is what they did to the ending. If you love happy endings, rent the movie. If you’re a little more twisted — or more inclined toward Goethe — you could do worse than the Pleasanton production.