September 6, 2004
Size matters in the theatre--and I'm not just talking about the steadily expanding dimensions of Audrey II, the bloodthirsty monster plant which is the star and centerpiece of the musical Little Shop of Horrors.
There's also the issue of scale, of matching the right frame to the right picture, and something about the new Broadway-sized production of the scrappy Howard Ashman/Alan Menken tuner, now in a touring stop at the Ahmanson Theatre, is all out of whack.
What started as a Roger Corman B-movie and was transformed into an ironic Off-Broadway pop musical in the early 1980s (and a film remake in 1986) has been turned into a slam-bang road-show contraption, with soaring new arrangements by Michael Kosarin, a massive Audrey II puppet that literally hovers over the front rows, and an evocative, Seuss-like cartoon set by Scott Pask, expertly shaped by Donald Holder's lights.
Some of the original's offhanded Off-Broadway charm survives--mainly thanks to the score's toe-tapping pop-rock facility. But Ashman's intentionally flimsy script, which relied for its humor on so-bad-it's-funny irony rather than, say, actual jokes, doesn't hold up well at these prices. Put bluntly, there are precious few real laughs or genuine conflicts here that register on anything but a cartoon level. And when a cartoon panel is over-enlarged, all we see are the colored dots.
Some of the dots, i.e., actors, acquit themselves well within the show's limitations. As the peroxide floozy Audrey, the rail-thin, brass-lunged Tari Kelly evokes Olive Oyl playing Miss Adelaide. In a variety of caricatures, including the sadistic "motorcycle dentist," James Moye has a crowd-pleasing, sketch comedy-like vigor. And as the three "urchins" who provide a sort of girl-group Greek chorus throughout, LaTonya Holmes, Amina S. Robinson and Yasmeen Sulieman enliven every scene they're in.
Anthony Rapp (an original cast member of Rent, another Off-Broadway sensation smothered by its oversized Broadway incarnation) plays lead nebbish Seymour, the green thumb whose blood pact with the exotic alien plant drives the action, and Lenny Wolpe plays his craven flower-shop boss, Mushnik. Both actors seem altogether too nice for their parts, like a pair of human Muppets; the show's schlocky horrors would probably rack up more cheap thrills with a whinier Seymour and a seedier Mushnik.
The puppets, designed by Martin P. Robinson and the Jim Henson Company and operated by a mix of onstage talent and radio controls, are certainly impressive, almost a show unto themselves, as Audrey II goes from a portable showpiece to a Jabba the Hutt-sized snapping dragon by show's end, with the voice of by a cackling bluesman (Michael James Leslie).
But under seasoned director Jerry Zaks, Little Shop feels closer to Sesame Street than Sweeney Todd. More cute than clever, more silly than funny, this repotted hothouse flower droops a bit in this overgrown state.