Playhouse on Park is on key, in harmony. When it does musicals, the West Hartford theater knows how to hit just the right notes and reverberate the right tone.
Last season, the playhouse brought a disaffected, lightly druggy vibe to "Passing Strange" and an eager earnestness to "A Chorus Line." Now it shooby-doo-wops and shrieks with wild abandon through "Little Shop of Horrors."
The production, which runs through Oct. 16, is colorful and crazed, capturing the chaotic comic book spirit of the show's sci-fi plot and its infectious pop score. The show is manic on the outside, but is elegantly constructed. A three-person girl-group acts as the Greek chorus for a series of comically horrific scenes of love, power mongering, revenge, bloodletting and indigestion.
"Little Shop" is the little musical, based on a quickly made 1960 Roger Corman B-movie, that became an overnight off-Broadway sensation in 1982. Disney saw something special in the show's upbeat tunes about the downtrodden, and hired its songwriting team of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken to do "Beauty and the Beast." Ashman died in 1991, but Menken's still out there, writing songs for such instant cult classics such as the TV series "Galavant" and the film "Sausage Party." The "Little Shop" musical got an all-star film version in 1986 and made it to Broadway proper in 2003; a national tour of that version came to The Bushnell in 2005.
The show's ghoulish plot involves a man-eating plant, a sadistic dentist, a bad-tempered florist and, lest it all get too tawdry, a love story.
This is an intimate musical with only a few people onstage at any given time, but director Susan Haefner makes it seem big and bustling. She also adds a shadowy human element to the comic overkill by having the actors occasionally wander behind a chain-link fence near the onstage band. This performance perp-walk includes the otherwise little-seen Rasheem Ford, who provides the soulful voice of the carnivorous "Audrey II." The plant is depicted by a series of puppets, using the original outrageous off-Broadway designs by Martin P. Robinson. (Robinson is revered in Connecticut for his decades of involvement with the Puppetry Conference at the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford.)
As grand as it all gets, there are also nuanced little bits to savor: a garbage can that contains some funny props, and beautifully delivered lines like "You're acting pretty strange, Pop."
Steven Mooney (as Seymour, the poor schlub whose discovery of an exotic plant brings him fame, fortune and a chance at the girl of his dreams) and Emily Kron (as co-worker Audrey, said girl of said dreams) realize that this show demands that they be very funny and also sing very well. They don't let the shtick get in the way of Menken's exquisite melodies, brazenly belting their romantic duet "Suddenly Seymour."
The band that Playhouse on Park assembled for this pop-smart show understands the need for pomp and pacing as much as the invigorated actors do. Guitarist Nick Cutroneo (who, like bassist Sean Rubin, performed in "Passing Strange") respects the need for punchy girl-group chords, but also makes his instrument rumble as if he's playing the overture from "Jesus Christ Superstar." Keyboardist/music director Penny Brandt wields the most power, helping build suspenseful crescendos where everyone onstage goes gloriously insane.
The jokes are funny. The songs are catchy. The plant is hungry. All the elements are in place. No pruning or replanting required. "Little Shop of Horrors" is in full bloody bloom.
"LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS" is at Playhouse on Park, 244 Park Road, West Hartford, through Oct. 16. Performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets cost $25 to $40. Information: 860-523-5900, playhouseonpark.org.