Sounds Frightful: The horror in Stray Dog's Little Shop is the acoustics

Lindsey Jones, Christopher R. Brenner and Ben Watts in Little Shop of Horrors.
Lindsey Jones, Christopher R. Brenner and Ben Watts in Little Shop of Horrors.

Feed me!" Audrey is hungry, so why shouldn't she be fed...and fed...and fed? The problem is that Audrey is no ordinary woman. Not only does she have one of the most guttural, un-feminine voices in the modern theater (making Medea sound like Shirley Temple), but of course Audrey is not a woman at all. As you likely already know, Audrey is a man-eating plant with an unquenchable thirst for blood. Diet be damned. This girl can't get enough.

Apparently viewers can't get enough of Audrey either, because opening night of the current Stray Dog Theatre staging of Little Shop of Horrors played to a wildly enthusiastic, standing-room-only audience. Whoever would have thought that a 1960 Roger Corman drive-in flick, made for a meager $30,000 over two frantic days, would morph (kinda like Audrey herself) into an indestructible money machine? Young wannabe theater mavens Alan Menken and Howard Ashman saw the story's potential. Surely their 1982 Off-Broadway comedy horror rock musical was inspired by the success of The Rocky Horror Show, but Menken and Ashman went far beyond camp. They succeeded in transforming an el cheapo drive-in movie into an inventive doo-wop evening that became the third-longest-running musical in Off-Broadway history. Long before Avenue Q rolled into town, Little Shop introduced inventive puppetry into musical theater.

In the playbill, Stray Dog director Justin Been writes about wanting to return "to the heart of the story." OK, if he says so. I don't know that there's any more heart in this story than in the 1954 sci-fi flick Creature From the Black Lagoon, which typifies the genre Little Shop is spoofing. You might recall that in The Seven Year Itch, Marilyn Monroe felt a lot of empathy for the poor misbegotten creature. So maybe there's some heart here, too. But mostly there's a garbage can's worth of spiffy music that reveal Ashman and Menken as boys who were going someplace. And indeed they did. Little Shop eventually sent them to the animated world of Disney, where they enjoyed even more fame than the musical's geeky main character, Seymour, could have envisioned. But Little Shop marks Menken and Ashman's catchy beginnings. Toe-tapping bubblegum songs like "Skid Row (Downtown)" and "Suddenly, Seymour" capture the duo on the cusp.

But there's just one minor caveat with this Stray Dog staging: I didn't hear half the show.

In its decade-long existence, Stray Dog Theatre has done an admirable job of securing a place for itself in the St. Louis theater scene. Gary Bell, Stray Dog's founder and artistic director, manages to schedule eclectic and often ambitious seasons that range from the sublime to the ridiculous. While building a loyal audience base, he has assembled a dedicated core company both on and behind the stage. Those early nomadic early years when Stray Dog couldn't find a permanent residence are now a thing of the past. Bell has found a happy home at Tower Grove Abbey. This would seem to be a grand success.

But here's the rub: The Abbey's acoustics suck. Hearing the actors is not so great a concern at Stray Dog's straight plays. But in musicals, where actors wear microphones in order to override the band, the unhappy hollow result is that it's nearly impossible to understand anyone. And it's not fair to write a review of people you've not heard.

Still, the impaired acoustics did not prevent the opening-night audience from a display of ardent enthusiasm. Apparently they loved the production as is. But between now and October, when Stray Dog opens its next season with that oozy exercise in splatter immersion, Evil Dead: The Musical, perhaps Bell and his creative team could address this not-so-minor matter of the sound. Honestly, most shows are even more entertaining when you can understand the words.