BEVERLY — What do you get when you cross “Faust,” “Frankenstein,” and a very hungry Venus flytrap?
You get “Little Shop of Horrors,” of course. And at North Shore Music Theatre, you get a very good time.
For “Little Shop” to register with all its cheesy charm, it helps to have a director and a cast who understand where that charm comes from. They have to be willing and able to entirely throw themselves into the deranged spirit of the thing. (That’s sort of a threshold requirement for the audience too.) NSMT director Bob Richard and his cast prove willing, and quite able, to deliver the goods in this musical tale of botanical mayhem. Richard makes copious use of NSMT’s rotating stage, underscoring the atmosphere of events spinning out of control (as well as, obviously, adjusting for the theater-in-the-round configuration of the Beverly playhouse).
It was 40 years ago that Howard Ashman and Alan Menken premiered their musical adaptation of Roger Corman’s low-budget 1960 cult film. One of the reasons “Little Shop” is still going strong — an acclaimed off-Broadway production has been packing them in for months — is that it’s retained so much of its B-movie, sci-fi DNA.
That, and the fact that for all its goofiness it’s loaded with heart, especially when it comes to the dandy score by Ashman (lyrics) and Menken (music), which blends Doo-wop, girl-group sounds, early ‘60s rock ‘n’ roll, Motown-style R&B, and Broadway-flavored ballads.
Indeed, one of the paradoxes of “Little Shop” is that a show so unapologetically lowbrow nonetheless contains two of the most meltingly lovely tunes in all of musical theater: “Somewhere That’s Green,” a song of aspiration for a better life (however defined by suburban cliches that dream may be), and “Suddenly Seymour,” a song about discovering the kind of love that might get you to that better life.
The Seymour in question is the nebbishy Seymour Krelborn (Andrew Montgomery Coleman), who has a crush on Audrey (Kim Sava), his co-worker in a failing flower shop on Skid Row owned by the flinty Mr. Mushnik (Ed Romanoff). Observing and commenting on the action from the sidewalk outside the store are a kind of Greek chorus consisting of Chiffon, Crystal, and Ronnette, played in lively style by, respectively, Maria Sylvia Norris, Charlotte Odusanya, and Erica Durham.
Purely by accident, Seymour discovers — and, alas, nurtures — a mysterious plant that proves to have an insatiable appetite for human blood and flesh. Seymour names the plant Audrey II (she is amusingly voiced by Tarra Conner Jones and manipulated by TJ Lamando). Avocado-colored, with a gaping red maw, “Feed me!” is her constant, bellowing refrain.
Will Seymour slip his moral moorings and oblige her, helping Audrey II get bigger and stronger (and more ravenous) because he wants to impress the original Audrey and savors the media attention he gets for developing such an unusual plant?
Will the law of unintended consequences kick in, rendering Seymour powerless over his creation? Is it possible that Audrey II is ultimately bent on multiplying and then devouring the world’s population, one bite at a time?
And might she begin that global banquet by making a snack out of Orin, Audrey’s abusive boyfriend, a sadistic, black-leather-jacket-wearing, nitrous-oxide-sniffing dentist played by Ryan Knowles?
You may well find yourself hoping that she does. Like the odious John Paul on Apple TV+’s excellent “Bad Sisters,” Orin is a character for whose demise you actively root. He’s also a figure who seizes your attention every second he’s onstage; Knowles makes sure of that by delivering a sensational performance. By also bringing vocal and physical variety to a host of other roles, Knowles emerges as the MVP of this production. He demonstrates the kind of versatility and brio that make you think: Give that man a solo show.
Sava’s Audrey is innocent, funny, and tragic all at once, a combination required by the role (and by the musical, in terms of emotional impact). The actress raises goose-bumps with her poignant rendition of “Somewhere That’s Green,” and brings the necessary desperate ardor to her duet with Coleman on “Suddenly Seymour.” A future seems possible.
Coleman, attired in a Yankees cap, sweater vest, plaid pants, and sneakers, makes for a sensitive Seymour. But Coleman is at his best when Seymour sheds that sensitivity and unleashes the anger he’s pent up for so long, entering into a Faustian pact by fiercely singing (referring to Orin) to the monster-plant he created: “The guy sure looks like plant food to me!”
Of course, to Audrey II, we all do.
LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS
Book and lyrics by Howard Ashman. Music by Alan Menken. Directed by Bob Richard. Presented by North Shore Music Theatre, Beverly. Through Oct. 2. Tickets starting at $63-$88. 978-232-7200, www.nsmt.org