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Review: Equinox Takes Risks in Little Shop of Horrors

He Said She Said Denver Theater Theatre
Little Shop of Horrors is perhaps the finest exemplar of the horror musical comedy genre, and tells the endearing story of the orphaned botanist Seymour Krelborn (whose role in the 1986 movie was played by Rick Moranis). Krelborn is a no-name assistant at a Skid Row florist shop when he unexpectedly encounters a strange an unusual plant. With this unidentified flytrap displayed prominently in the window, life is looking up for Seymour, until he realizes that his bloodthirsty plant can’t bring him fame and fortune without paying a hefty price.

Equinox Makes Bold Choices in Little Shop

HE SAID: People might say that, “if you have seen one Little Shop, you have seen ’em all.” The biggest change to The Little Shop of Horrors in the last several years was in the 2003 “revival” when the actor playing Orin Scrivello also became responsible for all of the other characters who come to patronize the shop or deal with Seymour. But since the inclusion of those creative updates, most productions of this fun sci-fi musical all ride the same path. That is, until Equinox got their hands on it. There are number of bold unique choices in this production that are sure to wake up those who have seen the show a few times and keep them on their toes.

Little Shop of Horrors, Equinox Theatre, DenverSHE SAID: Little Shop of Horrors is definitely one of my favorite musicals, and I actually think it’s one of those that is so well-written, almost any production is at least enjoyable. I’ve seen productions that were able to  please the average audience member that suffered from tiny budgets, novice acting, and unsure singing. So I knew that Equinox would at least get the job done, and I was excited to hear that they made some daring casting choices! And sure enough, I heard several contented audience members ask each other, “Wasn’t that fun?” on the way out of the theatre. As for their strange and unusual casting choices, well, those started other kinds of conversations.

Gender Bending Puts Novel Twist on Classic Roles

HE SAID: Daring casting choices indeed! While the choices they made were refreshing, I am not sure that they ever 100% worked for me. The first change came with the introduction of the three urchins – typically played by three women creating a Supremes-like girl group for the show. However, in this show, one of the three was cast a man dressed in drag (Chachi Martin). At first, I was skeptical. I thought blending might be off or the dynamic wouldn’t work, but I was wrong. The group (Martin, Kansas Lynn Battern and Celia Jones) harmonized very well and their energy in scenes built off each other. That said, I am not sure the choice added anything special to the show.  If it was simply a matter of casting the right person regardless of gender, then why not dress him as a man? There is nothing in the text that warrants the choice, no statement was really being made, and no moment was amplified because of it. While I appreciate daring choices to bring uniqueness to your show, I feel that there should be a solid reason for the choice.

Little Shop of Horrors, Equinox Theatre, DenverSHE SAID: I agree that the urchin in drag could have been an interesting choice, but it was never really showcased. In fact, I suspect that from the back of the house,  I might not have noticed that one of them was a man! It seemed more like the staff was trying to slip something past the audience rather than grabbing the audiences’ attention. The other bold choice, by contrast, was impossible to miss. The masculine voice of the talking plant, typically provided by a hefty, intimidating-looking man offstage, was replaced by a sultry performance by Ashley Menard as the plant, from onstage. Menard is one of the most outstanding vocalists I have heard in Denver to date, and her sexy growl was a brilliant fit for the plant’s power-hungry, blood-thirsty agenda. Her presence welcomed a novel presentation of the plant, as colorful and feminine, but I wished that she and her costume were more fully integrated into the plant puppet. I wanted her to wave extended tentacles as arms, and as the plant grows at the beginning of Act II, potentially become almost engulfed by foliage, rather than merely co-exist with the plant in the pot.

Talented Performances Beg for Conceptual Follow-Through

HE SAID: The plant voice being that of a female is something I have wanted to see for a long time. In the text, Seymour is kind of a loser with the ladies and says,”If I had a mother, she’d be so proud!” Both of these aspects screams the need for a woman to play the role, and offers up a world of dynamic qualities to utilize in performance. While Menard had a brilliant voice, she could have brought more variations to the part and there wasn’t enough physicality to warrant a human rather than a puppet. Opportunities to see a live facial reaction to the events on stage were lost when the actress was blocked to turn around or cover her face. More importantly, the magic of seeing a plant come to life was lost. Just like no one wants to see an actor play Kermit the Frog, an inherent part of the artistry of this show is bringing a puppet to life to the point where it has believable expressions and personality. With that gone, I felt cheated in a way.

Little Shop of Horrors, Equinox Theatre, DenverSHE SAID: I wasn’t nearly as bothered by the mere fact that there was a human onstage as the plant, but I do agree that Equinox could have gone farther with the choice. Those who were cast traditionally according to gender all sounded great. For the most part, their vocals soared (though sometimes fighting against the challenge of staying in time with a band that was out of sight). Lauren Cora as Audrey gave a believably fragile performance as a refreshingly brunette Audrey. I appreciated that Shannon McCarthy as Mushnik fully committed to an old, cranky physicality, although McCarthy’s actual and apparent youth prevented it from reading as entirely genuine through the grey hair and old age makeup. Kurt Brighton, who hasn’t performed in a musical in years (according to his bio), gave a somewhat cautious performance. If he was nervous about his singing voice, he needn’t be, he sounded great, but I wished that he had let loose and given each his five characters a more distinct physicality to hammer home the comedy of that casting choice.

Equinox’s New Twists Are Different, But Not Necessarily Better

THEY SAID:  Little Shop of Horrors is certainly worthy of its cult following. Loads of people love it for its quirky humor, loveable hero, and outlandish premise. While that might be great comfort for a theatre company, it also requires hard work to stand out and implement new twists and turns. Equinox should be recognized for their effort to make unique choices (and for casting very talented performers non-traditionally), but when it comes down to it, the boldness shouldn’t stop at the choice. The reason for that choice needs to be fully realized in the show, or otherwise it risks being different only for difference’s sake.

For a full plot synopsis and history of Little Shop of Horrors, see the wikipedia article. Little Shop of Horrors presented by Equinox Theatre Company plays through June 16 at The Bug Theatre. Click the banner above for tickets and more information.


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