Spoiler warning: this review contains mild spoilers for “Little Shop of Horrors.”
Ram’s Head has returned to the Memorial Auditorium with their first major in-person musical production in two years, “Little Shop of Horrors.” Last year’s musical, “Heathers”, was entirely digital, and the Spring 2020 production of “Pippin” was canceled shortly before its opening. The musical is over-the-top ridiculous; you think you know where a reasonable plotline would go, and “Little Shop of Horrors” hurtles ten miles past that in a flurry of song and dance. While there were a number of notable stars in this latest Ram’s Head show, ultimately the production suffered from a lack of clear sentiment and logistical COVID difficulties.
For those unacquainted, “Little Shop of Horrors” tells the story of Seymour Krelborn (Patrick Flores ’24), an orphan taken in by flower shop owner Mr. Mushnik (Calvin Hansen ’22). Seymour is hopelessly enamored with coworker Audrey (Bria Holmes-Lewis ’22), who is dating sadistic dentist Orin Scrivello (Sukie Kevane ’25). When Seymour discovers a mysterious talking, anthropophagic plant named Audrey II (voiced by JJ Sutton ’22), he’s able to save their struggling flower shop, but at what cost?
Together, the leading couple of Audrey and Seymour was excellently matched. Their duets were well-balanced, both strong singers playing their characters with the same grounded seriousness. Their duet “Suddenly Seymour” was an excellent culmination of their friends-to-lovers arc. For example, Holmes-Lewis portrayed Audrey as more thoughtful, unlike the role’s typically air-headed and naive characterization in most productions. Part of this, Holmes-Lewis said, included dropping her high-pitched New York accent: “Let her matter more to the audience. Let her be more serious than she’s been. I think stripping away the accent has really helped with that.” The heartfelt rendition of “Somewhere That’s Green” was a high point, displaying a strong belt with angelic vibrato that helped prove the success of Holmes-Lewis’ casting.
Flores — who was also in this year’s “Gaieties 2021: LE-LAND!” and Stanford Shakespeare Company’s “As You Like It” — played a tender, down-to-earth Seymour in a green sweater, button down, glasses, converse and baggy corduroys. His strong, expressive voice dominated the stage while his character poured his heart out to the audience. Flores’s soaring duet with Audrey II of “Feed Me (Git It!),” was an impressive display of his talent as a performer, complete with rock-inspired choreography.
“I think there are a lot more to characters than the standard archetypes that they seem to exhibit,” Flores said.
Justine Sombilon ’22 shined in her role as Chiffon, one of the three teenagers that narrate the show, along with Ronnette (Julia Milani ’23) and Crystal (Joey Chen ’25). Chen’s “Skid Row (Downtown)” was performed with piercing clarity and eye-catching entertainment. Her ever-steady voice was the backbone of the trio, and she executed choreography with a natural gracefulness.
While many of the show’s performers delivered successful shows, a number of characters fell comparatively flat. Some of this appears to be a lack of tonal direction: while Seymour and Audrey delivered serious, grounded portrayals, other performances aimed for comedy. Amongst Ram’s Head’s attempt for a more grounded musical, many of these comedic moments just didn’t gel well.
Take, for example, Orin, a gender-bent role played by Sukie Kevane ’25. Orin physically abuses Audrey, with his cruelty exemplified by his love of torture. His darker themes are contrasted by over-the-top numbers, culminating in his death by an overdose of laughing gas. Orin’s comedic cruelty felt inappropriate against the production’s choice for a more moving tale.
Another character casualty of this tonal discord was Mr. Mushnik. Hansen delivered a successful performance during his tango sequence with Seymour, “Mushnik & Son”, where Mushnik adopts Seymour to ensure he doesn’t take his success elsewhere. The number fully captured the tension, awkwardness and somewhat laughable connection between the two characters. Tragically, however, Mushnik’s only dynamic scene, where he catches onto Seymour’s murder of Orin, was cut short when Audrey II gobbled him whole, marking a sad ending for the role’s chance at a character arc. Meaningful development was sacrificed for laughs.
The number “Finale (Don’t Feed the Plants)” ended the show on a disturbing note of greed; with Orin, Mushnik, Audrey and Seymour all eaten by Audrey II, a businessman sells cuttings of the plant, leading to the same cycle of murderous tragedy across the world. The unexpected ending felt disconcerting and absurd, especially with the more serious choices by the production for the rest of the musical. As an audience member, it felt dissatisfying to see a lack of consistent tone.
Perhaps, some of the shortcomings can be attributed to how the cast and crew were stretched thin as new waves of COVID and other circumstances left the team short-handed. Throughout the rehearsal process, several members have been out with COVID, noted Flores. The first weeks of rehearsals in winter quarter were completely online as constantly changing University guidelines repeatedly put the possibility of rehearsals in question. The original actress intended to play Ronnette, one of the chorus-trio, tested positive shortly before opening night; Milani had to learn both the choreography and singing parts almost overnight in order to step up for the very visible role.
“Everyone on the show at this point has kind of had to do something they’ve never done before,” said co-director Ari Pefley ’22. Their co-director, Sutton, stepped in to play the voice of Audrey II, and the production’s costume designer Eli Arguello ’25 had limited time to work, as she was brought in only a few weeks before opening night, making the show’s well-suited costuming even more impressive.
“I think Zoom was definitely a challenge,” said Katie Baik ’25, the show’s choreographer. Additionally, members of both the cast and crew emphasized how inexperienced their cast was, largely due to the pandemic. There’s been a “big gap since in-person theater,” Pefley said.
Also notable is the fact that “Little Shop of Horrors” is a licensed musical. Without control over plot lines, Ram’s Head could not adjust the zanier aspects of the show’s story to fit a more serious tone.
Audrey II, the anthropomorphic plant, suffered from prop design failures, embodying the “newbie” feeling of the production. The plant grew as Seymour fed him with his blood, and later humans, from a handheld prop to then a massive, homemade puppet whose head was held up by wires hanging from the ceiling. In a long, silent pause, audience members were reminded of the student-run nature of the show when the ten-foot-tall plant’s head descended to eat one of its victims and was then pulled back up excruciatingly slowly to the squeaky noises of a crew member hoisting it back up by hand. Ram’s Head’s eyeless Audrey II wasn’t very expressive, diminishing its possible comedic and scary effect.
The road to opening night of Ram’s Head production of “Little Shop of Horrors” has had about as many twists as the musical itself. Perhaps, that’s really the whole shtick of “Little Shop of Horrors:” the show leaves you shocked, confused and delighted. The production was understandably a bit rough around the edges but packed with talent and heart. Many people had to step up last minute, leaving moments of the show unbalanced, but the cast impressively brought the show together.
“I think it just feels very emotional and exciting but also really nerve-racking,” Sombilon said on the return to in-person theater. “I think I’ve forgotten how stressful live theater can be.”
Editor’s Note: This article is a review and includes subjective opinions, thoughts and critiques.
A previous version of this article included multiple inaccuracies and copy issues, including incorrect pronouns, acknowledgments and a duplicated paragraph. The Daily regrets these errors.