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LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS gets O’Connell & Company’s Park School season off to a tasty start

THE BASICS: LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, the musical by Ashman & Menken about “Audrey II,” the man-eating plant, presented by O’Connell & Company, directed by Joey Bucheker, runs through October 28, Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 at The Park School, 4625 Harlem Road, Snyder (848-0800). Limited snacks, wine, basket raffles. Mature themes and language. Runtime:  Two hours including one intermission.

THUMBNAIL SKETCH:  Based on the 1960 low-budget Roger Corman film, this 1982 musical (which in turn inspired a 1986 film) is the story of young nerdy Seymour, who works in the abusive Mr. Mushnik’s flower shop, and who brings to the shop a small Venus-fly-trap-like plant which becomes a sensation that attracts customers. Seymour, in love with Audrey, who herself is in an abusive relationship with a sadistic biker dentist, names the plant “Audrey II” and feeds it his own blood. As the plant grows and becomes insatiable, things get out of hand, but not until we’ve heard a number of great early 1960s inspired rock and roll, doo-wop and early Motown tunes from the cast. If you liked listening to the Crystals, the Ronettes, and the Chiffons, not to mention everything ever composed by Carole King, you’ll love this show.

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: This is a fine mounting of LITTLE SHOP, with all the technical elements in place, putting O’Connell & Company in the company of just about every other venue’s 2018-2019 season opener. Well done!

Today, Howard Ashman (book & lyrics) and Alan Menken (composer) are best known for Disney films “The Little Mermaid” (1989), “Beauty and the Beast” (1991), and “Aladdin” (1992). But, here, before those claims to fame, the team was obviously having a great time honoring the music of their youth, from the snappy “girl group” prologue song “Little Shop of Horrors” to the yearning ballad “Somewhere That’s Green” to the Latin inspired “Suddenly Seymour” to the bluesy “Feed Me.”

Sharing the Park School’s auditorium as they do, in past productions, one often sensed that set designers felt constrained, and the sets seemed flat and temporary, but whatever the case, the set for LITTLE SHOP is delightfully three dimensional. The angled shop door, the painted floor, the stoop, the space for Audrey II to grow, all very clever. For comparison, if you enjoy sets at the nearby MusicalFare Theatre as much as I do, you’ll be very pleased here by what Scenic & Prop Designer Matthew Myers has created.

With this musical, it always comes down to the puppetry of the plant, the star of the show, Audrey II, which takes at least four (more depending on how you count them) iterations.

Audrey II pays a visit to The Terrace at Delaware Park

While instructions are available for theater companies, and even fully realized rentals are available, I’m told that what we see onstage is brand new, sprung from the mind of Puppet Designer Brett Runyon. When those lists are drawn up with titles such as “What’s great about Buffalo?” the quality of theatrical puppetry on stages here should be celebrated.

Speaking of the puppet, an “above and beyond” award goes to Audrey II’s manipulator Zachary Haumesser, a professional puppeteer who has trained with the “Sesame Street Puppeteer Workshop” and has been in many productions of LITTLE SHOP. Audrey II’s hard-working appendages (roots?) were provided later in the show by Ben Caldwell and Matthew Myers.

And, dear to my heart, there were no body mics in this show! Just actors and their unamplified voices. Yaaaay! Of course, that means that the singers and the orchestra must be matched, so kudos to Music Director Donald Jenczka (keyboard); Kris Banzhaf, percussion; Jay Wollin, bass; and especially Keith Galantowicz, woodwinds (including some real philharmonic quality flute playing).

When those lists are drawn up with titles such as ‘What’s great about Buffalo?’ the quality of theatrical puppetry on stages here should be celebrated.

Finally, credit must go to the director/choreographer Joey Bucheker (say “BOO-hecker”) for a consistent production where all of the elements were complementary to the star of the show – Audrey II. In the dressing room, Bucheker could have taped the theatrical maxims: “There are no small parts, only small actors” and “Don’t count scenes or lines. Instead, make your scenes and lines count!”

And, making their scenes count, the “Greek Chorus/Girl Group/Street Urchins” included the energetic Smirna Mercedes-Perez as Chiffon, Marta Aracelis as Crystal, and Emily Pici as Ronnette. Dan Morris plays tired, weary Mr. Mushnik while his employee Seymour, who could be described as a schmendrick, schlemiel, or just klutz is Matthew Mooney, in love with Audrey (the human) played by Jenny Marie McCabe, whose abusive boyfriend, the dentist Orin, is Daniel Lendzian (who also plays a wide variety of utility roles in a wide variety of costumes). And the big bluesy voice of Audrey II is provided by Jake Hayes.

UP NEXT: Included in your O’Connell & Company program is a $5.00 coupon to visit the Jewish Repertory Theatre’s production of THE STRUDEL LADY, up through October 28, starring Mary Kate O’Connell in the title role. If you enjoy musicals made from movies, you might try BIG FISH produced by Second Generation Theatre in Shea’s Smith Theatre, also through October 28. For O’Connell & Company at The Park School, NUNCRACKERS, the musical, runs from November 29 to December 23. And Joey Bucheker brings his creation THE BETSY CARMICHAEL CHRISTMAS SPECIAL to Shea’s Smith Theatre December 14 to the 23rd.

Photos courtesy O’Connell & Company.

*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)

ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.

TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.

THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!

Written by Peter Hall

Peter Hall

Peter Hall continues trying to figure out how "it" all works. For over 20 years, as a producer and program host on WNED Classical (94.5 FM), he's conducted over 1,000 interviews with artists as he asks them to explain, in layman's terms, "what's the big picture here?" These days Peter can be heard regularly on Sunday afternoons from 1 to 5.

On “Theater Talk” (heard Friday mornings at 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. on WBFO 88.7 FM) his favorite question of co-host Anthony Chase is simply "What's goin' on?" As mentioned recently in Buffalo Spree magazine, Peter's "Buffalo Rising reviews are the no-holds barred 'everyman's' take."

A member of Buffalo's Artie Awards Committee, Peter holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Columbia University and an M.B.A. from SUNY at Buffalo. For over twenty-five years he was an adjunct professor for Canisius College’s Richard J. Wehle School of Business.

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