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Little Shop of Horrors

Quite appetizing

By Vladimir Zelevinsky

Presented by MIT Musical Theatre Guild

Libretto by Howard Ashman

Music by Alan Menken

Directed by Christopher Lyon

Orchestra directed by Robert Rucinski

Voices directed by Jeff Flaster

Produced by Allison Clayton

With Welkin Pope ’00, Steve Niemczyk G, Jamez Kirtley ’94, and others

In Little Kresge, September 3-6, 16-18

Little Shop of Horrors is yet another show in the recent succession of highly enjoyable MIT Musical Theatre Guild productions: it’s appealing, competent, and entertaining. MTG should also be credited by picking a show on the manageable scale (unlike, say, something as daunting as Fiddler on the Roof), and selecting an impressive cast and staff.

Little Shop is written by the team of lyricist/librettist Howard Ashman and composer Alan Menken, who later worked on a good deal of Disney animated films (like The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin). There are obvious parallels between the duo’s work for the stage and the screen: Ashman is famous for creating beautiful, easily flowing lyrics out of plain boring everyday words, and Menken is every bit his match in inspired musical stylizations. There are even some direct similarities, such as the close resemblance between Little Shop’s “Somewhere That’s Green” and Little Mermaid’s “Part of Your World.” But Little Shop is also markedly different from anything that Ashman and Menken did for the Mouse House: it’s a twisted black musical comedy.

I’ll bypass the customary plot summary; if you know the story you won’t need it, and if you don’t (I managed to see the show knowing virtually nothing about it), you’ll have the enjoyment of following the plot. The important thing about Little Shop is that it is a perfect show for MTG: it is rapidly paced, has only a few characters and no chorus, has a distinct and very hummable but not too complicated songs, and, above all, is a lot of fun -- both for the performers and the audience.

Most of this fun translates well. The first thing that works is an exceptional orchestra (Robert L. Rucinski ’99, conducts, and plays the piano): from the overture until the finale the music is played with verve and clarity; this very well might be the best orchestra I’ve heard at MTG shows. Staging is clear, pleasantly stylized, yet it doesn’t look artificial. Lighting design is complex, yet it is never (well, almost never) more interesting than the action.

Acting is adequate, with the exception of the leads, who are very good. Seymour (Steve Niemczyk G), the protagonist, is a bundle of nervous energy, and it’s his moral choice in Act 2 which provides this show with most of its subtext. Jamez Kirtley ’94 plays something like half a dozen supporting characters; there’s little if any difference between any of them, but the Little Shop instantly gets a major jolt of energy when Kirtley is onstage.

Most remarkable is the MTG regular Welkin H. Pope ’00, who finally gets a long-deserved lead part. Playing Audrey, the flower-shop clerk, Pope manages to create a character which is simultaneously highly stylized and completely recognizable and human. She also has the highlight of the show, the “Somewhere That’s Green” song, where every single aspect of the show -- acting, singing, music, staging, lighting -- combine for several mesmerizing minutes.

The rest of the show goes along as usual, with most things working, and some obstinately refusing to work. Act one’s finale makes just about no sense, and there’s not much chemistry between Seymour and Audrey (although that’s probably because the libretto gives them all of one and a half scenes together). The admittedly nifty-looking set piece of little shop’s exterior is quite superfluous as well: the only thing it adds is several long (and loud) pauses while it’s dragged on and off the stage.

The only problem which is of some magnitude, though, is poor sound work: one of the characters is voiced from off-stage, and it’s very hard to make out the words. It’s somewhat mitigated by the fact that Jake Yara ‘93, who is doing the voicing, does very impressive emoting, so even when the words aren’t clear, the meaning behind them usually is; but it’s still a shame.

So, most things work and some don’t. Still, there’s one important difference between Little Shop and most of previous MTG productions. While I usually got an impression that the shows weren’t as much directed as they were organized, with most care and attention lavished on particular scenes, moments, and aspects of the show, sometimes to the detriment of the overall production, Little Shop is the exception, because it truly feels directed. The things that don’t work about this production are all details; things that work include pacing, characters, and story. This is a most welcome change, and I’m looking forward to seeing what MTG will do next.