Giant man-eating plant terrorizes Pittsburgh

If a huge, man-eating alien plant told you it would grant you your heart’s desire in exchange for a supply of still-warm corpses, would you do it? Surely, there’s some annoying cousin, perverted coworker, or cranky boss you could bump off to finally get that record deal or that hottie in your bio class.

That’s the premise of the musical Little Shop of Horrors, which is playing until next Saturday at Duquesne University. The musical is based on the 1960 cult movie of the same name by Roger Corman and features a toe-tapping score written by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman that’s half rock and roll and half doo-wop. The play is set in a floral shop on Skid Row, New York, owned by the cranky Mr. Mushnik, a modern-day Fagin (think Oliver Twist) who browbeats his two employees, Audrey and Seymour. Audrey, a platinum blond with a voice like an anime character born in Manhattan, has bad taste in clothes and even worse taste in boyfriends. Seymour is an orphan taken in by Mr. Mushnik, who allows the former to sleep under the counter and “eat good food like meat loaf and water.” Seymour, who comes across as a klutzier, dorkier version of Woody Allen, loves only two things — weird plants and Audrey.

The show opens in a graffiti-covered alley in Skid Row. Three high-school dropouts — Ronnette (Sarah Murtha), Crystal (Dina Ghandour), and Chiffon (Brittany Mulgrew) set the scene with the song “Little Shop of Horrors.” The trio serves as a Greek chorus throughout the musical. Each of the actors fully threw herself into her part, resulting in a well-done performance.

The curtain then rises on Mr. Mushnik’s Flower Shop, and we learn that business isn’t going so well — in fact, Mr. Mushnik (Eric Matthews) has decided to close the shop. Horrified, Audrey (Laura Paterra) convinces Seymour (Nick Bell) to show Mr. Mushnik the “strange and interesting” plant he bought the week before. Seymour puts a weird Venus flytrap-like plant he’s dubbed “Audrey II” in the window, and customers immediately come flocking.

All goes well until Seymour discovers that Audrey II’s favorite food is fresh human blood, and as the plant grows, it needs more and more. Soon Seymour is running out of fingertips, and we learn that not only can Audrey II talk and move (and sing), it’s also controlling the flower shop’s sudden good fortune. Unless Seymour brings home the human bacon — and soon — business will once again plummet.

Playing Seymour, Bell was awkward, nerdy, clinically clumsy, and adorable — in a word, perfect. Bell also had the best sense of comedy of the ensemble. The fact that he was a foot shorter than Audrey made them an even cuter couple. Paterra was brilliant as Audrey, both convincing and frightening in her devotion to her boyfriend Orin (who she describes as a “semi-sadist”) and, later, to Seymour. Blond Matthews didn’t exactly look the part of Mr. Mushnik, the Jewish shop owner, but his performance served to overshadow this discrepancy.

Joey Frollo, who played Dr. Orin Scrivello D.D.S., is introduced at the end of the first act as Audrey’s boyfriend. Frollo, however, was a bit too nice for a sadist. His performance illustrates the only major problem with Duquesne’s production — Little Shop of Horrors was a little light on the horrors. Audrey II, though impressively voiced by Armand Minotti, didn’t come across as very frightening, mostly because the other characters reacted to its threats like they were in a B movie rather than with genuine fear.

Overall, Duquesne’s production is a lot of fun, with a strong cast, great humor, and show-stopping numbers. It should be even better by next weekend, so if you like musicals, man-eating plants, or geek-power stories, hop on the bus downtown. But whatever you do, don’t feed the plant.