Rep’s ‘Little Shop’ rocks with humor, craftsmanship, strong performances

The Kansas City Repertory Theatre closes its season with a gleaming Cadillac of a show: a shimmering production of “Little Shop of Horrors” memorable for its high level of craftsmanship.

Director Kyle Hatley has said that he’s wanted to direct this show for years, and it shows. Virtually no detail goes unattended. He has assembled a vibrant cast of Kansas City-based actors and out-of-town performers, and the design elements are top of the line, from Meghan Raham’s set and costumes to the vivid but subtle lighting by Jason Lyons.

The Motown-ish musical from Alan Menken (music) and Howard Ashman (book and lyrics) is based on Roger Corman’s black-and-white 1960 movie about strange happenings in a flower shop on LA’s Skid Row. So it’s a sublimely silly musical based on a self-consciously silly film. Credit Menken and Ashman’s sense of style for elevating the material, but it’s the physical craftsmanship that makes this memorable theater. After all, how often to you get to see actors devoured by a gigantic man-eating plant at center stage?

Most of the action unfolds in a dust-blown flower shop on Skid Row, where we first see the owner, Mushnik (Gary Neal Johnson), reading the Skid Row Daily News. He’s despondent because he never gets any customers. That changes when one of his employees, the socially inept Seymour (Joseph Medeiros), produces a strange little plant he’s found and places it in the window. Immediately a passer-by walks in and orders $100 worth of roses.

Another of Mushnik’s employees, Audrey (Ashley Blanchet), is the object of Seymour’s unrequited affection, but she’s locked into a relationship with a physically abusive boyfriend and seems always to be coming to work with a black eye or an arm in a sling.

Seymour names the plant Audrey II and quickly determines that it thrives on human blood. Initially, Seymour gives Audrey II what it needs by pricking his fingers and cutting his hands, but Audrey II just keeps growing. After awhile, he decides the main source of food has to be other people.

This show is full of pleasant surprises, not the least of which is Johnson’s singing ability. I knew the guy could sing, but I never would have guessed that he could meet the demands of a pop-rock musical. He absolutely does, and the results are impressive, to say the least.

Most of the dramatic action hinges on the woulda-coulda love story between Seymour and Audrey, and the actors sell us on the sweet innocence that leads Seymour to make some fateful decisions. Medeiros finds a way to play Seymour that makes him thoroughly nerdy without putting off the audience. It’s quite a balancing act. And the charismatic Blanchet delivers a superbly executed comic performance and reveals a stunning voice.

This is an ensemble piece, but if the show must have a star, there are two viable candidates. Michael James Leslie provides the booming voice of Audrey II and he provides much more than a voice-over. Leslie can be seen above the stage near the band and his body language -- let alone his expressive voice -- communicates his commitment to giving Audrey a human dimension. The coordination between Leslie’s vocal performance and the movements of Audrey II (operated by the unseen Nick Uthoff) are remarkable.

And then there’s Nick Cordero, who plays Orin, Audrey’s sadistic boyfriend as well as a range of smaller roles. I’ve seen Cordero twice before – once in New York when he played the title role in “The Toxic Avenger,” and again last year in Kansas City when he played the metal-head owner of a rock club in the national tour of “Rock of Ages.” To call Cordero versatile is an understatement, but here he lights up the stage with a glee that rubs off on the viewer.

The action is punctuated by a trio of soul singers – Eboni Fondren, Jennie Greenberry and Colleen Grate – who comment on the plot developments and play various small roles. Each of these ladies possesses a commanding voice and they open the show with a bang that makes the viewer want to hear more of them – and we do.

The band, led by music director Anthony Edwards, is tight and precise. Joshua Horvath’s sound design strikes a good balance between the singers and the band -- although static in the body mics was a problem on opening night, particularly early in the show.

And we should give credit to Grace Hudson, who designed and engineered Audrey II in collaboration with Raham. Audrey II appears in various sizes through out the show, ultimately growing to gargantuan dimensions. She’s given Leslie and Uthoff all they need to give a big carnivorous plant a personality of its own.