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Little Shop of Horrors

Jules Becker
Little Shop of Horrors
arts46a.jpg (Photo: Andrew Brilliant / Brilliant Picture)

Is there such a thing as reverse multiculturalism?

Performers and theatergoers alike may be pondering such a question after seeing New Repertory Theatre’s season-closing revival of the hit 2003 Broadway musical “Little Shop of Horrors.”

In recent years, non-traditional casting has enabled local African American actors to take on roles originated by white counterparts in such plays as “Moon for the Misbegotten,” “Seascape” and “Troilus and Cressida.”

It has meant many more stage opportunities for black actors.

If a question arises about the often entertaining and generally well-sung New Rep production, the composition of the Skid Row trio here may be the reason why.

When Howard Ashman and Alan Menken first collaborated on “Little Shop of Horrors” in 1982 for Off-Broadway, they named the show’s Greek chorus-like threesome Chiffon, Crystal and Ronnette after three important New York City black girl groups singing doo-wop and easy rock and roll in the 60’s.

Moving the show’s story — based on a 1960 Roger Corman movie (of the same name) — from California to New York, Ashman and Menken added a striking urban sound to a quirky story about a nerdy hero named Seymour and his devilish Venus flytrap-like plant Audrey ii.  

With catchy songs like “Skid Row (Downtown),” the title number and on-going observations about the people around them, the trio provides a Motown sound take-off that contrasts with the increasingly gory proceedings.

The presence of a black Greek chorus of street urchins in a cautionary tale about greed and power may also be standing as a subtle subtext about the outsider status of blacks in the years before major civil rights legislation was passed.

This is the first time that this critic has seen a version of the trio with one black actress — Lovely Huffman as Crystal — and two white ones: Jennifer Fogerty as Chiffon and Ceil McCaleb Zweil as Ronnette. All three performers have the right energy and sing effectively.

Let me be completely clear — there is absolutely no accusation of racism here against New Rep. At the same time, the company may wish to consider to what degree it reached out to the Hub’s many talented black singer-actresses to audition for the trio.   

Still, New Rep’s revival is a very solid one. Under the skillful direction of veteran actor Russell Garrett, both principals and supporting cast generally do well with the musical’s clever offbeat story and tuneful score. Blake Pfeil is properly earnest and appealing as unlikely plant expert Seymour. Susan Molloy as abused flower shop worker Audrey sings with fine resonance-especially on “Somewhere That’s Green,” her character’s dream of living in a suburban utopia.

Paul  D. Farwell has all of flower shop owner Mushnik’s Yiddish kvetching and  cynicism about city life. Bill Mootos is a hoot as helium-addicted dentist Orin. Timothy John Smith delivers monster plant Audrey II’s food demands — especially the humorously ominous “Suppertime” — with deep base notes and high style.

Timothy P. Hanover expertly manipulates Audrey II in its puppet smaller sizes. Todd C. Gordon, a regular New Rep music director, robustly articulates the show’s amusing and snappy score.

Little Shop of Horrors, New Repertory Theatre, Arsenal Center for the Arts, Watertown, through May 27. newrep.org or  617-923-8487.