The partnership of lyricist Howard Ashman and composer Alan Menken represents one of the more tantalizing “what if?’’ stories in musical theater history.
As the songwriters for instant classics “The Little Mermaid’’ and “Beauty and the Beast,’’ they were crucial forces behind the Disney animation renaissance. But when Ashman died at age 40 of AIDS, the collaboration between a duo seen as potentially the Rodgers and Hammerstein of their generation was cut cruelly short.
You feel a renewed pang at what was lost, as well as a firm sense of the creative synergy that drove their partnership, while watching Rachel Bertone’s exhilarating production of “Little Shop of Horrors’’ at Lyric Stage Company of Boston. Running through Oct. 6, it’s a musical tale of the havoc wrought when a nebbishy flower shop employee enters into a Faustian pact with a carnivorous, quite literally bloodthirsty plant named Audrey II.
Menken and Ashman concocted this adaptation of Roger Corman’s cult film well before their Disney masterpieces. Its score is flavored with early rock ’n’ roll and doo-wop, and its sci-fi satire is hitched to a deliberate B-movie messiness. The popularity of “Little Shop’’ has endured since its 1982 debut; indeed, an off-Broadway revival starring Jonathan Groff, Tammy Blanchard, and Christian Borle is slated to begin performances next week.
But you needn’t feel any need to rush down to New York, not when Bertone has brought “Little Shop’’ to life in all its deranged glory. The director, whose track record when it comes to staging vibrant musicals grows more impressive each season, draws on the talents of a crackerjack design team that includes Janie E. Howland, whose drab flower-shop set is cleverly flanked by posters advertising such ’50s horror flicks as “The Brain Eaters’’ and “Attack of the Puppet People’’; Marian Bertone, whose costumes are a treat, including an homage to the evening gowns worn by the Supremes; and, especially, Cameron McEachern, who is credited with the inventive puppet design, which draws from the original designs by Martin P. Robinson in the 1982 stage premiere.
Adroitly manipulated by puppeteer Tim Hoover and commandingly voiced by Yewande Odetoyinbo, the puppet versions of Audrey II appear partly amphibian, partly reptilian. The largest iteration of Audrey II squats upon the stage like a mammoth, leprous frog — a spectacle that is practically worth the price of admission all by itself.
As for the cast members who play the humans, they are virtually faultless, with one significant exception. In the leading role of Seymour Krelborn, who gets a lot more than he bargained for when he starts cultivating an unusual plant, Dan Prior’s vocals fall short in terms of projection (even in the Lyric’s intimate venue, it was too often hard to hear Prior over the band) and to a lesser extent in terms of caliber.
Prior does nail the acting side of the Seymour equation, however, and he pairs up appealingly with Katrina Z Pavao’s Audrey, the insecure co-worker upon whom Seymour has a major crush. As for Pavao, she is terrific. The actress — who holds an MFA in musical theater from the Boston Conservatory at Berklee — draws laughs as Audrey one moment and tears the audience’s heart out the next. When she performs “Somewhere That’s Green,’’ a song of simple yearning for a life in suburbia by a woman whose self-esteem has been shredded by a string of bad relationships, Pavao generates such concentrated emotional force that you could hear a pin drop in the theater.
The versatile Jeff Marcus steals a few scenes as Audrey’s abusive, leather jacket-wearing boyfriend, a sadistic dentist, while also doing yeoman’s work in a variety of small roles. As Mr. Mushnik, the manipulative florist who is only too happy to exploit Seymour’s need for a father figure while watching business boom thanks to public curiosity about Audrey II, Remo Airaldi again demonstrates why he is counted as one of the best character actors in Boston.
But from start to finish, the secret weapon of “Little Shop’’ is the top-notch work by Pier Lamia Porter, Lovely Hoffman, and Carla Martinez as Chiffon, Crystal, and Ronnette, the street urchins on Skid Row who act as a kind of Greek chorus, commenting on the action — often in a sardonic, knowing tone. They know better than to feed the plant.
LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS
Book and lyrics by Howard Ashman. Music by Alan Menken. Directed and choreographed by Rachel Bertone. Music direction, Dan Rodriguez. Presented by Lyric Stage Company of Boston through Oct. 6. Tickets $25-$79, 617-585-5678, www.lyricstage.com