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Review: Santa Barbara High’s ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ Is Scary Good

Director Otto Layman brings out the best in a talented young cast

There has not been a long and storied tradition of man-eating plant musicals on the Great White Way. There has been exactly one such extravaganza, and it was a smash sensation, a runaway Broadway success in 1982. Santa Barbara High School Theatre’s production of Little Shop of Horrors hits all the high points of the original and adds some real magic of its own.

Directed by longtime (and long celebrated) Santa Barbara High theater director Otto Layman, with mood-establishing sets and lighting by Mike Madden, perfect period costumes by Lise Lange and doo-wop choreography by Christina McCarthy, the show simply steamrolls the audience with a wave of nonstop happy energy, and an expertly administered pinch of authentic melancholy. Quite a feat considering all the hollering and devouring that takes place on the stage.

Based on the eponymous, mildly gloomy Roger Corman B-horror film of 1960, the musical features songs written by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, whose songwriting partnership would later give musical voice to Ariel, The Little Mermaid.

Bespectacled uber-nerd Seymour is a shuffling, anxious florist’s assistant whose lot is to work in a Skid Row flower shop — an uneasy business model if ever there was one — under the baleful eye of his boss, Mr. Mushnik. Seymour only has eyes for co-worker Audrey, a perky, ever-hopeful dreamer who wants nothing more than the love of a decent guy and escape from the tenements to greener pastures. The short-tempered handcuff enthusiast she is dating, a giddily sadistic dentist by trade, is not fulfilling her, despite her best efforts to soldier on.

In short order, Seymour discovers and begins to nurture a potted plant with peculiar qualities, soon realizing that the leafy little fiend needs regular infusions of blood to flourish. Seymour names the burgeoning plant Audrey II, in honor of his heart’s desire.

Audrey II soon enough grows to be a demanding, toothy tulip the size of a Volkswagen, requiring ever increasing amounts of type-O nourishment even as her monstrous novelty causes the florist shop’s celebrity, and that of Seymour himself, to blossom. Soon an emboldened Seymour is openly courting the lovely Audrey I, following the mysterious, happy and botanically inspired disappearance of her dyspeptic former beau. The more Seymour gets what he wants, the more the ever-growing Audrey II is seen to be orchestrating his good fortune, to our hero’s growing chagrin.

And all of this colorful chaos is set to a live soundtrack that could have been written for The Shirelles. Inevitably, the story takes a truly Shakespearean turn; if William Shakespeare were a botanist with anger-management issues.

The cast positively shines. Dylan Fitzgibbons as Seymour invests the role with the wit and energy and effervescent comic timing of a young Bobby Morse. Allison Lewis as Audrey doesn’t short us on the comic ditzy, but manages to bring Audrey movingly to life as a hope-filled aspirant to better times, particularly in the gorgeous — and gorgeously sung — “Somewhere That’s Green.” Lewis’ crystalline singing is something to be reckoned with.

Clayton Barry as Mr. Mushnik is an unbridled hurricane of uncontrolled emotion, and provides a welcome borscht-belt feel to his portrayal of the variously harried and exultant florist. Geoff Hahn as Orin the angry dentist is truly impulsively scary, and also possessed of a terrific singing voice, evident even when he is performing from within the muffled confines of a gizmo-festooned helmet. The urchins and denizens of Skid Row sing and dance unforgettably, harmonizing beautifully while strutting and shimmying.

Emma Robbins is also in fine voice as the conniving Mrs. Luce, one of a litany of entrepreneurs who emerge from the woodwork to exploit the suddenly bankable Seymour, who very nearly loses himself and the love of his gal in the ruinous glow of his and Audrey II’s sudden celebrity.

Through it all, musical director John Douglas leads his tightly swinging band through an energetic set of hummable, finger-snapping songs and the occasional breath-stopping ballad. As befits a Skid Row ensemble of musicians, they are safely ensconced behind period chain link just below the stage apron. The puppeteers who bring Audrey II to life are also to be commended, and indeed drew some of the wildest applause at the curtain call.

Little Shop of Horrors delivers the goods, and the night I saw the show the audience received the delivery with enthusiastic open arms. When, in Act II, Seymour and Audrey finally shared a long-anticipated, drawn-out kiss, the house absolutely erupted with what can best be described as heart-seizing support.

Thanks to Layman and company, this high school musical contains all the necessary ingredients; music, dance and enough honest warmth to fill the auditorium — and then some.

Little Shop of Horrors continues this week, at 7 p.m. Nov. 18-20 at the school, 700 E. Anapamu St. An outreach show will be held at 2 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 18. Click here for more information.

— Jeff Wing is a Noozhawk contributor covering the arts.

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