Thursday, January 26, 2006

Little Shop of Horrors

Bigger is not necessarily better, as anyone will learn who takes in “Little Shop of Horrors,” the current touring Broadway production at the Sacramento Community Theater, and watches the plant, Audrey II, begin to grow to gargantuan proportions.

Based on the Roger Corman 1960 film of the same name, the musical, with book and lyrics by the late Howard Ashman and music by Alan Menken, had its world premiere off Broadway in 1982, where it ran for more than 2200 performances. The musical music version, starring Rick Moranis and Steve Martin was produced in 1986 and in 2003, “Little Shop of Horrors” hit the big time with a real on-Broadway production.

The current production under the direction of Jerry Zaks shows the difference between a small theater off Broadway production and a splashy on Broadway one. Everything seems “bigger.” The choreography (by Kathleen Marshall) seems tighter, the performances broader, and skid row is glitzier (if possible) than ever.

The opening trio, Chiffon (Iris Burruss), Crystal (Badia Farha) and Ronnette (Latonya Holmes) are high school drop outs who hang around the buildings near Mushnik’s flower shop and act as a kind of “Greek chorus,” filling in the gaps in the story, and reminding us the unfolding emotions. Burruss, Farha and Holmes are each outstanding, and each gets her own chance to shine in solo bits.

Joe Farrell is Seymour Krelborn, the hero of the story, a clumsy, young man with a Dickensian upbringing, an orphan who had been taken in by Mr. Mushnik (Darin DePaul), the owner of a failing skid row flower shop, who let him sleep on the floor behind the desk and sweep up. But Seymour has a couple of secrets. He is hiding his love for the sweet, if a bit ditsy shop girl, Audrey (Liz Pearce), and he has been tending a strange and wonderful plant he picked up at an open air market. He feels he has discovered a new species and, in honor of the girl of his dreams, has named the plant Audrey II.

Unbeknownst to Seymour, Audrey II is actually a creature from outer space, with a taste for human blood, and its own nefarious plans for world domination. Seymour is the perfect foil.

The spectacular Audrey II puppet was designed by the Jim Henson Workshop and manipulated by Michael Latini, Marc Petrosino, and Anthony Asbury (who is credited in the program as its “midwife.”). Michael James Leslie gives Audrey II a booming voice, and also appears as a derelict on the street in earlier scenes, as do the other manipulators.

As for the rest of the cast, it would be difficult to find a flaw. Farrell’s Seymour was perfectly nerdy, struggling with the desire for the recognition that owning Audrey is beginning to give and anguish over what he must do to get it.

Liz Pearce’s Audrey, mincing about on impossibly high heels, in skin-tight clothes she considers to be stylish is just right without being over the top (though being “over the top” is pretty much what this show is about). She has no self esteem because she considers herself a “woman with a past,” and so she allows herself to be manhandled by her sadistic leather-clad, gas-sniffing biker/dentist boyfriend (Daniel C. Levine, who also appears in several other roles, each with its own bad wig) because she feels that’s all she deserves.

Audrey sings a wistful song about what her dream of the perfect life would be, living in a small tract house in the suburbs, “somewhere that’s green.” The play is set in the 1960s and so the lyrics reflect that time, but it did occur to me that I wonder how long references to “Lucy” and “Howdy Doody” will resonate with the young people who are just discovering this musical.

Audrey and Seymour also sing the shows signature song, “Suddenly Seymour,” as they discover their mutual love, and as Audrey discovers that with “sweet understanding” she can learn to be “more the girl that’s inside of me.”

Darin De Paul’s Mushnik is outstanding. With a commanding stage presence, he gives the character the kind of life one would find in a vaudeville comedian.

As Audrey continues to grow, Seymour becomes the neighborhood star and begins to have all the things he dreams of -- a real father, a real girlfriend, fame, riches. Unfortunately, he learns all too soon the price he must pay to make his dreams come true and is faced with making painful decisions.

There is no great message in this show, unless it’s “if you find a strange plant which appears suddenly following a total eclipse of the sun, walk by and leave it alone.” But this musical is fun for the whole family.

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