Jared Gertner and Jenny Fellner
in Little Shop of Horrors
(© Gerry Goodstein)
Jared Gertner and Jenny Fellner
in Little Shop of Horrors
(© Gerry Goodstein)
A truly successful production of Little Shop of Horrors must seamlessly blend camp with sincerity. And while one might expect director Mark Waldrop -- whose credits include When Pigs Fly and My Deah -- to provide an ultra-campy, elaborate staging of the famed musical, his new production at the Paper Mill Playhouse is extremely sincere and character-driven, while also providing crowd-pleasing entertainment.

Based on Roger Corman's 1960 low-budget B-horror movie of the same name, and featuring an infectious score by Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman, the show is a black comedy combining traditional musical theater characterizations, doo-wop and Motown melodies, suggestions of the Faust myth, themes of urban poverty and physical abuse, and monster movie folklore. (Plus, who can't love a musical that manages to rhyme "shang-a-lang" with "sturm and drang"?)

Here, before the production opens, an electronic, blinking "Little Shop of Horrors" sign frames the black curtain, while green lighting effects pour throughout the theater. In the musical's voiceover intro, we watch a meteor-like object hit the Earth, and moments later, the girl-group trio of Chiffon (Montego Glover), Crystal (Badia Farha), and Ronnette (Angela Grovey) appear in 3-D movie glasses, and finally start up the opening number.

Soon, we're in Mr. Mushnik's flower shop -- which spins like a turntable, revealing an alley backdrop for outside scenes -- where we meet nerdy floral shop assistant Seymour Krelborn (the gentle Jared Gertner, who feels completely authentic as the lost, lovable underdog). He pines for Audrey, the trampy damsel in distress with a black eye and an arm in a cast (played by Jenny Fellner, in an extremely delicate and straightforward performance).

Unfortunately, Audrey is already spoken for; she's dating the "semi-sadist" dentist Orin Scrivello, played by Asa Somers, who accentuates the character's giddy insanity rather than his physical and mental cruelty to Audrey. (In fact, the infamous slap scene, where he hits Audrey in front of Seymour, is staged with Audrey's face hidden from the audience.) But soon, things turn around -- for better and worse -- thanks to Seymour's mega-plant Audrey II (manipulated by Paul McGinnis and voiced by Michael James Leslie).

Not everything here works. The score, now played by a five-person pit band, sounds so electronic that whenever a song begins, you might actually think that a cell phone is ringing somewhere in the theater. And ultimately, this is a traditionally intimate show not all that well suited for one of the largest theaters in the area. Still, this particular production is so engrossing that even those audience members in the rear mezzanine ought to feel its weight and be glad they visited this Little Shop.