Matthew Sewell Photography
Brianna East, Alexis Richelle, Greg Laucella and Claire Fossey in Little Shop of Horrors, Arkansas Repertory Theatre

What’s cooking at the Arkansas Repertory Theatre these days?

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One part botany, two parts science fiction, three parts murder mystery and a generous splash of doo-wop. Did I miss anything? Perhaps a giant carnivorous plant with all the attitude and sass of your favorite drag performer?

Mix well and you’ve got The Rep’s outstanding current production, the classic dark comedy musical “Little Shop Of Horrors,” now playing through the end of April. The performance is fast-paced, clever and hilarious, with the perfect combination of gore and showmanship to keep an audience enthralled.  

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This musical is loosely based on a low budget film from the 1960s (“The Little Shop Of Horrors”) and debuted off-off Broadway in 1982 with music by Alan Menken and book by Howard Ashman. It subsequently moved up and became the most successful off-Broadway musical in history, spawning a Hollywood film version in 1986 starring such stars as Steve Martin and Rick Moranis.  

“Little Shop” centers on an unsuccessful floral shop on New York City’s Skid Row, where Mr. Mushnik (Buzz Roddy) employs both the bespectacled and bumbling Seymour (Greg Laucella) and the lovely but unlucky-in-love Audrey (Tara Tagliaferro), with whom Seymour is shyly smitten. Mr. Mushnik is on the verge of closing his shop permanently when Seymour shows him an interesting and unusual plant he found during a recent solar eclipse and has named “Audrey II.” Once the exotic plant is displayed prominently in the store window and word gets around, the shop becomes wildly successful.  

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However, Seymour soon learns that the plant can only survive on human blood. At first, he feeds it drops from his own fingers. As Audrey II grows and its hunger increases, it begins to speak, making lavish promises of fame, fortune and romantic bliss with Audrey. In return, it demands to be fed human flesh. Seymour’s dilemma is stark:  Should he ignore Audrey II and remain a penniless loner or feed it humans and get everything he ever wanted?

Dark? Sure enough. But it’s hard to be too horrified when the tale is skillfully and soulfully sung by a cast of performers deftly alternating between pathos, gore, comedy and a yearning for love and escape from Skid Row. A Greek chorus-like group of streetwise ladies (the fantastic trio of Alexis Richelle, Brianna East and Claire Fossey) provide lively narration throughout, propelling us through the story of Seymour’s gruesome predicament and Audrey’s dreams of a better life.

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Laucella’s Seymour and Tagliaferro’s Audrey are excellent protagonists who perfectly capture the desire for something out of reach, whether that be love or fame. Tagliaferro especially shines on the tearfully comical “Somewhere That’s Green” while both sparkle on the duet, “Suddenly, Seymour,” as newfound love emerges amidst the carnage. We are undoubtedly and unabashedly rooting for these two crazy kids.

Stephen B. Thornton
Tara Tagliaferro and Greg Laucell in Little Shop of Horrors, Arkansas Repertory Theatre

However, the unmistakable star of the show is David LaMarr, who — in a twist for fans of previous “Little Shop” productions — brings the Audrey II character to life and plays it not as a large puppet but rather as a singing, dancing humanoid using the entire stage. LaMarr’s performance is that of a bawdy, sinister, beseeching and glittery Rasputin in plant form, convincing Seymour to shed his morals and murder for profit. I especially enjoyed their rendition of the “Feed Me (Git it)” duet with Seymour, where the murderous plant’s true colors emerge and its evil proposal is laid out in stark rock ’n’ roll detail. LaMarr’s Audrey II plays their role with high energy and frequent sly winks to the audience as if we are all in on both the joke and the conspiracy.  

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Special kudos to Director Stephanie Klemons for going out on a limb and freeing Audrey II from its traditional presentation. In this reviewer’s opinion, the experimental choice worked exceedingly well and really upped the action in a way that was a little less campy and a lot more thrilling. Good theater is often about taking chances, and I liked seeing that rule applied to such an integral part of a classic musical.

For parents concerned about whether the subject matter will frighten their children, fret not. Tweens aplenty were present during my visit to the production and were rapt throughout. The entertainment value is high and the combination of upbeat music and the dazzling Audrey II help to keep spirits lifted.  

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Get down to The Rep and see “Little Shop Of Horrors” before the run ends. It’s fun, quirky and has just the right amount of scary spice added to the treat.

Matthew Sewell Photography
Greg Laucella and Joey Calveri in Little Shop of Horrors, Arkansas Repertory Theatre

“Little Shop of Horrors” plays at the Arkansas Repertory Theatre through April 30 and tickets range from $30-$65. Tickets can be purchased here.

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