PITTSFIELD — There is an utterly irresistible showstopping moment in Berkshire Theatre Group's ingratiating, oh so smart and appealing production of Howard Ashman (book and lyrics) and Alan Menken's (music) "Little Shop of Horrors," which opened a too-short run, through July 23, over the weekend at the Colonial Theatre.
It didn't quite bring the house down at Saturday's opening but it came close. Not flashy, not big, but, in its unassuming virtuosity, perfectly in tune with the spirit and texture of director Ethan Heard's shrewd, revelatory production.
The moment belongs to Lindsay Nicole Chambers as Audrey, an appealing hard-luck young woman with low esteem, to say the least, who works as a clerk in a failing Skid Row flower shop.
Hapless and helpless, Audrey is the bruised victim of a horribly abusive relationship with a twisted, sadistic, motorcycle-enthusiast dentist named Orin (splendidly played by James Ludwig, one among a variety of delightfully wrought characters), who gets off not only on the pain he inflicts on others, especially Audrey (one of the more uncomfortable, albeit vitally necessary, scenes involves Orin's withering humiliation of Audrey in front of her colleagues when he comes to pick her up at the flower shop), but also the rush he gets from sniffing nitrous oxide.
Unable to see the possibilities for true love and decency that works side by side with her every day — Seymour, the chief store clerk, (Stanley Bahorek in a thoroughly complete, winning performance), Audrey dreams of a Donna Reed/Father Knows Best life with her husband in a little suburban matchbox of their own. She gives voice to those dreams and hopes when, standing outside the flower shop, her right arm in a sling, she sings "Somewhere That's Green," softly, quietly, expressively, her poignant measured phrasing slowing down, her voice dropping as she reaches the end of the song; her dream becoming a straw in the breeze. Takes your breath away.
Hopelessness abounds in Mushnik's Skid Row Flower Shop. All that changes — for better and worse — when Seymour nourishes to life a strange exotic flytrap-style plant using an unlikely food source — human blood. Seymour names the plant Audrey II. As Audrey II flourishes, so do the flower shop and Seymour. But, as is the case with Faustian bargains, the cost is high; intolerably high.
This is not your average, cute "Little Shop of Horrors." Heard lets the musical's characters — not the least of them the Dickensian Skid Row itself — speak for themselves. For all the charm and wit in Menken and Ashman's material and buoyant performances from a fine ensemble of actors, Heard taps a dark underbelly without making an overt point of it.
Heard's biggest risk is casting a human — lip-syncing drag queen Taurean Everett — as the plant, Audrey II, typically played by a puppet. With Bryonha Parkham giving voice to Audrey Ii from offstage, this Audrey II is a presence and a formidable one at that. This is a far more intense, personal relationship than we're used to seeing in "Little Shop." The effect is palpable, especially as Seymour struggles between, on one hand, the rewards of doing evil in feeding Audrey II's voracious appetite for human blood and, on the other, the consequences.
Seymour could easily have stepped out of a Dickens novel into this setting. He's been taken in by the flower shop's pragmatic proprietor, Mushnik (played gloriously by Stehenm DeRosa who has been too-long absent from Berkshire stages) and done menial tasks at the store in exchange for a place to sleep under the counter. Even when Mushnik formally adopts the meek young man, Seymour is never truly more than a means to an end for the businessman. But as Seymour becomes increasingly entangled with Audrey II and, as a consequence, the economic benefits of their barbarous partnership, he also finds his voice, his heart, his strength, his manhood. It may be a terrible rite of passage but rite of passage it is.
Lest all this sound weighty, it's not; it's the dimensions that Heard, his creative collaborators (his acting ensemble, which, in addition to the aforementioned, includes Alia Hodge, Kay Trinidad and Jalise Wilson as a rockin', swinging' Skid Row Greek chorus; scenic designer Reid Thompson; choreographer Parker Esse and costume designer David Murin) have explored without neglecting this show's whimsy, tunefulness and good-hearted sense of play.
This is a show with a lot of smarts and an awful lot of heart.
What: "Little Shop of Horrors." Book and lyrics by Howard Ashman. Music by Alan Menken. Based on the film by Roger Corman, Screenplay by Charles Griffith. Directed by Ethan Heard; choreography and fight choreography, Parker Esse; music direction, Rick Bertone
With: Stanley Bahorek, Lindsay Nicole Chambers, Stephen DeRosa, Taurean Everett, Alia Hodge, James Ludwig, Bryonha Parham, Kay Trinidad, Jalise Wilson
Who: Berkshire Theatre Group
Where: The Colonial Theatre, 111 South St., Pittsfield
When: Through July 23. Evenings — Monday through Thursday at 7; Friday and Saturday at 8. Matinees — Thursday and Saturday at 2
Running time: 2 hours (including one intermission)
How: (413) 997-4444; berkshiretheatregroup.org; at box office — Colonial Theatre; Fitzpatrick Mainstage, 83 E. Main St., Stockbridge