Original Article: https://www.chicagotheatrereview.com/2018/09/down-on-skid-row/
Welcome back, Scott Calcagno! This brilliantly multitalented, detail-oriented director returns to the Drury Lane Theatre after wowing audiences a few seasons back with his wonderful production of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” as well as in ten seasons of “A Christmas Carol.” In his current campy, clear-cut and impressively guided production, Mr. Calcagno mines every ounce of humor, satire and wit from this cult classic. Audiences familiar with the musical and those who are new to its hilarious, satirical story, are singing the praises of this inventive, show-stopping production.
Audrey, Seymour, Orin, Mr. Mushnik and all the other crazy characters from this 1982 comic book horror rock musical are also back! It’s been too long, but Drury Lane’s new production has made it well worth the wait. Based upon Roger Corman’s low-budget, darkly humorous science fiction film from 1960, composer Alan Menken (“Beauty and the Beast,” “Sister Act”) and his writing partner, the late, great writer/lyricist Howard Ashman, initially created this cult classic for Off-Off-Broadway. Due to its unprecedented popularity, it eventually found its way to Off-Broadway, and finally made its way onto the Great White Way, in 2003. The show was also adapted for the silver screen and became a popular 1986 film musical. A worldwide favorite, wherever and whenever this satirical, sci-fi Motown musical is produced, the show is always huge a hit. Drury Lane’s production, presented with savvy staging and a topnotch cast by Scott Calcagno, is no exception.
Seymour is a likable, nebbish young worker at Mr. Mushnik’s Skid Row Flower Shop, in New York. An orphan, whose life seems to be going nowhere, he secretly has a crush on Audrey, his beautiful, blonde, buxom co-worker. Audrey, however, is a woman with very low self-esteem. As a result, she’s become involved with a sadistic dentist named Orin Scrivello, who bullies, berates and often beats her, much to everyone’s horror and disapproval.
In a series of opening numbers (the title song, “Skid Row” and a little ditty called “Da-Doo”) we learn that Seymour just happened to be walking through the gardening district one day when, during a total eclipse of the sun, a new and unusual plant suddenly appeared before him. The proprietor sold the rare, but sickly little flytrap to Seymour, who brought it back to Mushnik’s Flower Shop. In the back room he secretly nursed it to health (“Grow For Me”) and when Seymour finally put it in the shop window, the plant, which he’s named Audrey II, begins to draw the attention of hundreds of customers. Business suddenly takes off and Seymour becomes a celebrity. The only problem is that the plant thrives on human blood.
Meanwhile, Audrey’s boyfriend is becoming more and more violent and abusive. Seymour decides to solve three problems. He becomes convinced that Orin would make perfect plant food for Audrey II and, in secretly feeding the dentist to the plant, he’d also rid Audrey of her sadistic suitor, while maybe having a shot at romance, himself. From then on complications develop and one crime leads to another. Soon there’s no stopping the Audrey II and its cannibalistic, bloodthirsty takeover of the world.
The musical features a toe-tapping pop/rock score that mimics the doo-wop sound of the 60’s. Menken’s catchy, uptempo numbers, with witty Award-winning lyrics by the late Howard Ashman, include two soulful ballads: Audrey’s “Somewhere That’s Green” and the triumphant duet, “Suddenly Seymour.” While these two songs can truly stand on their own, everyone in the cast has his musical moments. In particular, it’s the engaging and entertaining trio of Crystal, Ronnette and Chiffon, who become a combination of narrator, Greek chorus and backup girl group for the show.
Portraying these three talented street urchins, the magnificent trio of Candace C. Edwards, Melanie Loren and, especially terrific, Melanie Brezill practically steal the show. Sharing the stage with the main characters, they enchant with so many wonderful, tongue-in-cheek, faux Motown melodies, such as their impassioned renditions of “Don’t It Go To Show You Never Know,” “The Meek Shall Inherit” and the dramatic finale, “Don’t Feed the Plants.” Lorenzo Rush, Jr., who provides the rich, velvety voice of Audrey II, may be unseen (until the curtain call), but his vocal presence resonates throughout the production. This terrific musical actor was seen recently as Caiaphas in Paramount’s “Jesus Christ Superstar,” as well as Big Joe in the Court Theatre’s “Five Guys Named Moe.”
But this show truly belongs to the impressive Kelly Felthous (Roxy Hart in Drury Lane’s “Chicago”) and Will Lidke (Tony Manero’s buddy in “Saturday Night Fever”), as Audrey and Seymour. This acting/singing duo are exquisite in every song, every romantic moment and in each and every corny, but comic gesture and piece of schtick. Together these two talented musical actors effortlessly reach the peak of perfection. Their chemistry shines strongly throughout, playing off each other with perfect timing. Their onstage storybook romance is as real as it gets in a cartoon.
Kelly Felthous is hilarious and moving as the sweetly naive girl from Skid Row who thinks she’s undeserving of love and kindness. Her plaintive “Somewhere That’s Green” almost stops the show with her character’s earnest sincerity. Ms. Felthous uses her big voice to its full advantage in this role, while sporting huge hair and tiny skirts, high heels and low-cut blouses. Will Lidke is everything Ashman and Menken could’ve envisioned as Seymour. With his wide-eyed, youthful looks, his honest delivery of lyric and line and his superb musicality, Mr. Lidke is the most lovable leading man imaginable.
One of Chicago’s finest and best-loved character actors, Ron E. Rains (who’s played, among many other roles, 11 seasons as Bob Cratchit in the Goodman’s “A Christmas Carol”) adds another perfectly-tuned role to his already impressive resume. His Mr. Mushnik is right on the money. The actor’s spot-on portrayal of this tempermental Skid Row florist, who keeps a sharp eye on the success of his business, still finds a bit of compassion for his two young employees. Mr. Rains is also a gifted singer and he makes the most of his ensemble numbers, like “Closed for Renovations,” and particularly his funny, paternal patter song, the lightning-paced tango, “Mushnik and Son.”
Steven Strafford, a standout as Johnny Sandwich in Marriott’s recent “Honeymoon in Vegas, creates another smarmy, perverted, grinning, overbearing character in Orin Scrivello, DDS. His autobiographical cha cha, appropriately called “Be a Dentist!” is sung with particular rapture and relish. Strafford’s scenes with his costars offer a sadistic satisfaction, matched by his zombie-like look, his pale skin and a shock of black hair. Mr. Strafford also skillfully portrays a whole variety of minor characters, from a barfing street bum to a slick agent from William Morris, and he does so with whimsical delight.
Once again, Scott Calcagno’s direction, his Motown choreography and expertise with stylized, whimsical comedy is faultless. He proves he’s a master of this cartoon style of theatrical work. Calcagno has staged his production with precision and efficiency, making wise use of Kevin Depinet’s detailed, turntable scenic design. Calcagno extracts every drop of humor from his cast, guiding their perfectly paced, razor-sharp performances. Musical direction, providing so many tight harmonies, is by the gifted Roberta Duchak. It is, as always, spot-on. Chris Sargent’s five-member band is flawless, particularly the clever chords of the Sweeney Todd organ accompaniment that suddenly pops up during the more melodramatic moments.
Lynda Myers’ colorful, period-perfect costumes and Claire Moores’ humorous wigs and hair designs provide additional layers of fun to this production. Every time Crystal, Ronnette and Chiffon enter the stage they’re dressed and coiffed in an entirely new creation. Cassy Schillo’s monumental work with props require hundreds of flowers and floral arrangements that become increasingly more beautiful as the story progresses. But perhaps the most impressive technical work comes from Martin P. Robinson’s colorful, carnivorous puppet creations that are the various incarnations of Audrey II. Robinson’s series of puppets convince theatergoers that the diabolical pod plant is actually growing larger with each scene. And bringing these puppets to life is Matthew Sitz, whose artistry as the puppeteer for this frighteningly funny plant from outer space adds a special brand of horror to the show.
It’s been a while since Chicago enjoyed such a lavish professional production of Menken and Ashman’s clever, captivating musical science fiction satire. It was well worth the wait. This exciting, expertly crafted and creatively directed production arrives just in time for Halloween and is sure to be remembered for years to come. It features some of Chicago’s finest talent performing at the top of their game. In addition to a thoroughly entertaining script and an unforgettable musical score, this musical will leave audiences with four words of warning: Don’t Feed the Plants!
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented September 6-October 28 by Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace, IL.
Tickets are available in person at the box office, by calling them at 630-530-0111, by calling TicketMaster at 800-745-3000 or by going to www.DruryLaneTheatre.com.