Little Shop of Horrors, running through Aug. 19 at Toby's Dinner Theatre, is a musical about a plant that feeds on people.
Repulsive? Frightening? Sick-making? None of those things. It is performed broadly, with tongue in cheek, and the fearsome plant at its worst is nothing more than an overgrown stuffed animal.
The show is a lighthearted spoof of movies of the 1950s and 1960s -- horror films, science fiction flicks, rock 'n' roll musicals.
The central character is Seymour, a shy young man who works in a flower shop in a rough neighborhood. The florist, Mr. Mushnik, took him out of an orphanage years before. Seymour is too grateful to realize he is being kept in something like slavery.
He is in love with Audrey, who also works in the shop, but she is obsessed with her abusive boyfriend Orin, a sadistic, cycle-riding dentist.
Business being slack, Seymour uses his abundant spare time to breed new plant varieties. He is especially proud of one curious flower, which he names Audrey II.
Mushnik is unimpressed by Audrey II, but the plant seems to have magical powers. Business improves drastically when it is displayed in the shop window.
While handling some roses, Seymour pricks his finger on a thorn. That's when he discovers that Audrey II feeds on blood. The plant, growing larger scene by scene, keeps demanding food. Needing a victim, Seymour decides on Orin. He goes to the dentist's office with a pistol, but Orin causes his own death by accident.
For a while, at least, Seymour is saved from crime and Audrey II is fed. The young botanical genius begins to gain fame and (better still) some favorable response from the human Audrey, but the time inevitably comes when he has to do a guilty deed to satisfy Audrey II.
Seymour gets deeper and deeper in trouble as the show goes on, but there is a happy ending -- for one character, at least.
Little Shop of Horrors originated as a low-budget, black-and-white movie directed by Roger Corman in 1960. A young Jack Nicholson played a small role in it.
Later, with book and lyrics by Howard Ashman and music by Alan Menken, the show was converted to a musical, which enjoyed a long off-Broadway run. The musical was filmed in 1986.
Ashman's dialogue and lyrics are clever, and Menken's music pleasantly recalls the rock 'n' roll and rhythm-and-blues styles of the '50s and '60s.
The enjoyable production at Toby's features a cast of familiar performers. David James brings his considerable acting, singing and dancing talents to the role of Seymour. Audrey, innocent and uncouth, is played to the maximum by Heather Marie Beck.
David Bosley-Reynolds, often cast as a sober authority figure, reveals delightful comic ability as Mushnik. Russell Sunday, playing Orin, radiates macho menace and has plenty of opportunity to display his fine baritone voice. Olin has what might be the funniest death scene ever written, and Sunday plays it beautifully.
A trio of brash teenage girls named Chiffon, Crystal and Ronnette appear throughout the show, sometimes taking part in the action, sometimes underscoring it in song and dance. The roles are well handled by Priscilla Cuellar, Alana J. Thomas and Robin Rouse, respectively.
Special mention should be made of Adam Grabau and Michael Lehan, who take turns crawling under the skin of Audrey II and bringing it to awesome life, and of Genevieve Williams, who provides the plant with its formidable speaking and singing voice.
Also deserving of notice are the performers in the ensemble: Jessica Coleman, Ray Hatch, Jeffrey Shankle, Rosie Sowa and Anwar Thomas. They keep the stage full of life, singing, dancing and playing minor roles while making frequent and rapid costume changes.
All are capable of playing leads, and some have done so at Toby's and other theaters. Hatch, in addition, created the choreography and collaborated with Toby Orenstein on the lively and clever direction. Who would have thought a show about a people-eating plant could be fun?
Toby's Dinner Theatre, 5900 Symphony Woods Road, Columbia, presents "The Little Shop of Horrors" through Aug.19. Evenings: Doors open at 6 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays. Matinees: Doors open at 10:30 a.m. Sundays and Wednesdays. Reservations are required. Information or reservations: 410-730-8311 or 800-888-6297.