As North Carolina Theatre (NCT) presents its lavish production of the musical megahit Little Shop of Horrors, it is worth remembering the half-century old origin of this story and the stunning metamorphosis it has made from “B” motion picture to theatrical industry. If you would have told someone leaving a movie theater in 1960 that this slight 70 minute picture with an absurd plot that took two days to film and cost $30,000 would become a hit Broadway musical, they probably would have dismissed you as a lunatic. Although it gained somewhat of a cult following, in part because of a small role played by an aspiring unknown actor named Jack Nicholson, it wasn’t until the early 1980s that the team of composer Alan Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman (who also created some of the brilliant Disney studio scores of the 80s) transformed Little Shop of Horrors into one of the great musicals of our time.

Because of the relatively few roles and a score that can be played by just a few musicians, Little Shop has become a staple of high schools and community theater, but the NCT presentation is a professional production of the highest caliber with little or nothing to find fault with. In fact, this is one of the most pleasurable, leave-your-troubles-at-home evenings of entertainment that you can find.

One of the most creative and special aspects of this musical is Menken and Ashman’s addition of the street urchins: a musical Greek chorus of three women who comment on the storyline and action. Keeping with the time period of the original film, the girls and the music are a mixture of 50s doo-wop, early Motown and gospel. Their names in the show –  Crystal, Ronnette and Chiffon – are obviously taken from three of the top “girl groups” of the early 60s. Played by Natalie Renee, Rebecca Covington and Danielle K. Thomas, this trio of young women were the hands-down highlight of what is already a great cast. Their harmonizing was flawless and they brought an infectious energy and propulsion to the action. As an added bonus they looked great and you could understand every word they sang.

Little Shop is the story of Seymour, a nerdy florist shop worker in the “skid row” section of an unnamed city. He works for Mr. Mushkin, as does the sexy, beautiful Audrey who spends her personal time dating creeps and getting beat up. Seymour buys a strange plant during a total eclipse of the sun and it eventually develops a thirst for human blood, and a very cool voice. Seymour is played by Noah Putterman who brings a well-developed Broadway vocal technique and fluid stage presence to this great role, although he is not quite the nebbish as portrayed by Rick Moranis in the 1986 film. Gina Milo is perfect as Audrey, the ditzy blonde who eventually realizes she loves the sweet, sensitive Seymour and sings perhaps the show’s most well-known and lovely song “Somewhere That’s Green.” Stephen Berger is Mr. Mushnik, the shop owner and financial beneficiary of the popularity of Audrey II, the plant that has eaten its way to fame.

In a sense, the star of the show is the plant itself: how it’s designed and moves, and especially its voice. It would be hard to equal the mellifluous and soulful voice of the late Levi Stubbs, lead singer of the Four Tops, who was the voice of Audrey II in the 1986 film, but Michael James Leslie comes very close. He had a commanding presence and had just the right balance of comedy and dread in his powerful voice. His trademark line “Feed me” shook the walls. The manipulation of the plant was deftly handled by Parker Fitzgerald, who has built a national reputation as the finest “Audrey II Manipulator.” Evan Casey, playing the part of Audrey, the woman’s sadistic boyfriend, really belted it out in “Dentist!,” probably the funniest number in the show, although it is nearly impossible to come close to Steve Martin’s classic performance in the movie.

The band consisted of Nancy Whelan, keyboards, Drew Lile, guitar, John Simonetti, bass and John Hanks, drums. They were a tight, loud and sensitive band under the direction of Julie Bradley.

This opening night cast seemed like they had been performing for weeks, and the direction and choreography of Casey Hushion gave it an air of technical perfection combined with breezy fun. The new cultural year has just begun, but you need to get right out to downtown Raleigh to experience a spectacular evening of great musical theater. 

Little Shop continues through September 26. For details, see our calendar.