I loved the movie musical version of “Little Shop of Horrors” as a kid and ArtCentric’s version was the first musical I was excited to see on stage. In case you haven’t read my other reviews, I’m not a fan of musicals, so my excitement for Little Shop is a little atypical. “Little Shop of Horrors” is one of the few productions immune to my cold musical theater heart. ArtsCentric, for those not in the know, is a theater company that is “color conscious”, meaning the productions they choose highlight or showcase people of color. Sometimes that means choosing a show that speaks to the Black experience, but in this case, they purposely cast “Little Shop of Horrors” with Black actors. After what seemed like a long curtain speech and donation appeal (ArtsCentric does have a campaign to raise money to help them move to their new spot on Howard Street in the old Single Carrot Space) the show started.
The plot: Geeky Seymour Reborn (Ricardo Blagrove) works for flower shop owner Mr. Mushnik (Ryan Gholson), along with the sweet and battered assistant Audrey (Kayla Halo Wheeler), aren’t making enough money to get by. Who puts a flower shop on the economically downtrodden Skid Row? Seymour has the idea to put the strange and unusual plant that he recently found in the storefront window hoping it will attract clients. It works! Business starts to pick up just as Seymour discovers how to keep the plant healthy: human blood. The plant, with the new moniker of “Audrey II” (Jhermaine Drakeford), grows hungrier day by day and Seymour’s bleeding fingers are not enough. The talking plant (yes we are officially in a musical now) demands fresh human meat and Seymour obliges. Seymour and Audrey fall in love after her abusive dentist boyfriend Orin Scrivello (Patrick Leonardo Casimir) goes mysteriously missing. #feedme. Unfortunately, as Seymour and Audrey II become more popular, the plant becomes insanely powerful and proves to be the ultimate downfall for Seymour and his friends.
I am dubbing this show “Little Shop of Soul” cause that is exactly what it felt like. The three women who act as a Greek chorus, Chiffon (Raquel Jennings), Crystal (Kanysha Williams) and Ronette (Andrea Gerald), had harmonies, great dancing and attitude. They started the show off with a bang and were a consistent thread throughout. The principal actors in this production were stellar. Ryan Gholson as Mr. Mushnik had great comedic timing, especially when paired with Seymour. The song “Mushnik and Son” was funny and creepy AF. Audrey II singer Jhermaine Drakeford, heard but not seen, made me say “Yaass” out loud with his vocals and energy. His performance was fun, maniacal, and soulful. That voice honey! Ricardo Blagrove had good characterizations as the nerdy plant genius Seymour and his chemistry with Kayla Halo Wheeler (Audrey) was sweet and sincere. The infamous song “Suddenly Seymour” did not disappoint. Hands down, Kayla Halo Wheeler had a beautiful voice. The song “Somewhere that’s Green” showcased her clear voice with lovely endings to her notes. Her voice elicited reactions of joyful approval from the audience every time she sang.
Patrick Leonardo Casimir as the gassed up dentist Orin, had a deep resonating voice that was smooth and “Shaft” like, which was only enhanced by the actor’s costume of a long leather duster and big afro. He had me giggling alongside him during the song “Now (It’s Just the Gas)”. I wish he would have played up the mania and likeable evilness of the Dentist a little more. I didn’t believe that he was as evil as it was. Additional details could have been added to really play up the fear Audrey and others had of him. One thing I can say with certainty is that the ensemble cast in this production was strong! The women were dancing full out in 3 inch platform shoes. Ya’ll better get it! The finale is worth the price of admission. Voices for days! Great way to end with an exclamation point with a full song and dance number.
Lastly, I have to give mad love to the Puppeteers Terrance Fleming and Jordan McAllister who operated the “medium” and “large” versions of Audrey II. Their work required full body operation and musicality. Job well done.
The technical side of the house was equally impressive thanks to the overall vision of Technical Director Lee Lewis. I’m used to seeing the movie with its 50s style esthetic, but ArtsCentric brought the funk with a 70s inspired interpretation. Costume designer Alison Johnson and wig/makeup Designer Larry Munsey brought the era to life with spot on bell bottoms, dashikis, and afros. Musical director Cedric D. Lyles kept it dynamite with 70s influenced music. Mr. Lyles took liberties with the musical arrangement and I was there for it. The ArtsCentric Band (Piano/Conductor: Cedric D. Lyles, Keys 2: Anthony Dix, Guitar: Ernest Douglass, Bass: Michael Kellam and Drums: Tarek Mohamed) was jumping with the electric guitar and soulful bass. The lyrics were uptempo and funky and fit perfectly with the 70s flair.
Choreographer Shalyce N. Hemby was giving me life with her incorporation of dance moves of the era. Scenic designer Emily Lotz made me feel like I was on skid row. The Flower shop pop out, the built up set and the graffiti painted walls made the space seem intimate and realistic. Lighting was on point thanks to Lighting Designer Corey Brown, who kept the space warm, vibrant, colorful and layered with light. Director Kevin S. McAllister was the glue that brought this story to life. Staging, theme and actor performances was well crafted and connected.
I’m about to say something that some people might not like, but I’m a grown Black women who doesn’t give a shit. Black audiences are the best audiences. Period. They do not sit silently when a performer hits an awesome note. They yell “Yass girl!”, “Saaang!” and groan loudly in approval. They snap their fingers or wave their hands when they are feeling it. They are ENGAGED. “Little Shop of Horrors” got me engaged. It was refreshing to be surrounded by that type of energy in a theater. I had not noticed the soul in the music until I saw this show performed with an all Black cast. Final note: Baltimore is more than a crime, rat infested skid row. It is a city with talented Black creatives showcasing their art, talent and hustle. Baltimore is a city of survivors who will eat you alive if you get in our way. Now head downtown and see this show!
SHOULD I STAY OR SHOULD I GO? Run to see this before it closes! Campy, funny, sweet and overflowing with talent, ArtsCentric’s “Little Shop of Horrors” has it all. The time flew by. Arts Centric and the cast and crew have created something very special with this production. With kick ass choreo, cool costumes, fly music, and powerhouse vocals, this show has something for everyone. The company’s unique vision shone through brightly. The end curtain call speech asked a very important question to the audience after the show: “Did they sing ya’ll happy?” Yes, they sure did. I left with a huge smile on my face and you will too. Bravo! —Z (P.S. This is one of the best shows I’ve seen this year too and it will definitely be up for more awards at the BITRSweet Awards! A must see! -I)
Now playing through August 17th. Running Time: about 2 hours with one 20 minute intermission.