Little Shop of Burgers
By: Samuel L. Leiter
October 23, 2019: Pop quiz: what current Off-Broadway musical contains all the following?
- A plot inspired by a cult movie.
- A setting mostly located in a small commercial establishment.
- An aging boss unwilling to accept the wimpy hero’s idea for how to improve business.
- The eventual success of the employee’s idea, leading to significant financial rewards and the establishment’s media attention.
- A chorus of three, youthful, omniscient characters, who comment on the action in song and dance.
- A tragi-farcical plot, with elements of both grotesquerie and fantasy, in which the hero and his significant other die gruesome deaths.
- The bloody sacrifice of a comically over-the-top supporting character, whose death is necessary for the plot to advance.
- A homicide detective investigating the hero’s suspected malfeasance.
If you said Little Shop of Horrors, you’re correct. But if you said Scotland, PA, you’re also correct.
Little Shop of Horrors, of course, opened last week to rave reviews in a revival that only deepens its entrenched standing among aficionados. The next few days will reveal how Scotland, PA, which just opened at the Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre, will be received but I’d be surprised if, like Little Shop, it will still be getting major revivals decades after this production closes.
Book writer Michael Mitnick (Fly by Night) and composer/lyricist Adam Gwon (Ordinary Days) have based Scotland, PA on Billy Morrisette’s rather secondary, 2001 movie of the same name (59% on Rotten Tomatoes). Like similar attempts, the movie updates Shakespeare’s Macbeth to modern times, albeit for dark comedy (Barbara Garson’s 1967 MacBird flies to mind) rather than tragic drama (don’t forget Men of Respect).
It starts off promisingly enough as a farcical takeoff on the Scottish play, much like an SNL skit, but instead of doing its spoof in 10 minutes or so, it goes on for two hours and 10 minutes (with one break). This is well after its broad, often cartoonish humor, like its hero’s victims, has expired.
Set in 1975 in the (actual) small town of Scotland, PA, the show—which takes some liberties with the film’s plot—imagines a 30ish couple, the McBeths—the dull bulb Mac (Ryan McCartan, appealing) and the bright bulb Pat (Taylor Iman Jones, also appealing). They hold menial jobs at Duncan’s Café, a burger shack owned by the tyrannical Duncan (Jeb Brown, effectively nasty).
Duncan mistreats his sweet-looking son, Malcolm (Will Meyers, quite good), who hates his dad and has no interest in the place but has a decided fondness for football. That’s not because he’s a good player, however. As he points out in the most effective comic song, “Why I Like Football,” the reason is the opportunities it gives him to ogle his teammates in the locker room.
Getting high on weed, Mac hears three, singing, Stoner hippies (think Shakespeare’s witches)—Jessie (Alysha Umphress), Stacey (Wonu Ogunfowora), and Hector (Kaleb Wells)—talking in his head. They urge him to take action if he’s ever going “to be a somebody,” and give him a “big idea” of how to do so.
The idea is to add a drive-thru window to the restaurant (1975 is when McDonald’s actually introduced these in its restaurants). In the movie, it’s Duncan’s idea but the show makes it Mac’s, as implanted by the Stoners. This allows Duncan to underline what a shit he is when he sarcastically rejects it.
With the ambitious Pat urging Mac on, Duncan gets fried to a crisp, and the McBeths acquire the business, which they rename McBeth’s. As the company sings “Open for Business,” Anna Louizos’s set makes a startling shift. Up to now, we’ve seen scenes inside Duncan’s Café and outside in the forest, represented by hanging, moving panels. Following a bit when the shop is under renovation, Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew’s lights suddenly flare up, surprising us with the sight of the new McBeth’s, painted bright yellow and red in classic McDonald’s style (I hope they’re not suing!).
McBeth’s becomes a cash cow because of its drive-up window, thus inspiring talk of franchises worldwide. We even meet a businessman named Ray Crump (Jeb Brown, again), a heavy-handed nod to McDonald’s founder, Ray Kroc. Meanwhile, Peg McDuff (Megan Lawrence, good but needing funnier material), the transmutation of the vegetarian gumshoe played in the movie by Christopher Walken, comes snooping.
Pat and Mac’s imbecilic coworker, Banko (Jay Armstrong Johnson, goofily amusing, with an initially hilarious but ultimately tiresome vocal fry), knows a bit more than he should. Bang! Bullet to the skull. Pat suffers from a wrist burn (a twist on Lady Macbeth’s damned spot). Chop-chop and it’s gone. McDuff finally catches up with Mac, who has a fatal run-in with the spiky upward points on the drive-thru sign’s large M, reminiscent of Audrey II’s teeth in Little Shop. McBeth’s goes on the market, brightening the future for McDuff, who’s long wanted to open her own vegetarian café.
Scotland, PA’s score is simply too much like countless other listenable but uninspired ones. It fails to do what Little Shop does so well, that is, create pastiches parodying those of another era so well that the new tunes themselves become memorable, like “Suddenly, Seymour.” None ofthis show’s numbers promises to linger longer than the show.
Gwon’s effort to emulate the sounds of the 70s is insufficient, made even more so by characters costumed (by Tracy Christensen) in close reflections of period clothes. The hippie Stoners are a good example but even more so is Mac, when he wears a three-piece, white suit almost exactly à la John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. Ryan McCarten, tall and slender, suits the look so well you yearn for a Bee Gees-styled song with appropriate disco-type choreography from Josh Rhodes, whose dances otherwise are unexceptional. There are too many such missed opportunities.
Scotland, PA, energetically staged by Lonny Price, also has a tonal problem. It begins as brash farce, with overstated characters, but, unlike Little Shop, finds it hard to sustain the inflated satirical tone when things get serious. Macbeth’s evil is too virulent for longform comedy; once the musical’s exaggerated style and premise have been established, and attention turns to Mac and Pat’s necessary downfall, the script’s excesses become increasingly less amusing.
Audiences going to Scotland, PA looking for a sizzling Big Mac may be disappointed when all they get are a few, cold Chicken McNuggets.
Laura Pels Theatre
111 W. 46th St., NYC
Through December 8, 2019