The novelty of "Little Shop of Horrors"--you know, that tough-talking, man-eating extraterrestrial house plant with the sweet name--wore off a while back. But even now, six years after Howard Ashman and Alan Menken's zany musical first opened on Broadway, most of the expectation still focuses on Audrey II and its appetite.
An Audrey II without personality can leave "Little Shop of Horrors" with a bad case of blight. Fortunately, at the Harlequin Dinner Playhouse in Santa Ana, Audrey II is a loudly pleasing creation, all hunger and hilarity. This is one mean mother of an overgrown weed, a virtual Big Daddy of a philodendron whose anthem is "feed me!" And we're not talking about a cup of fertilizer, either.
Credit both Richard Kleber, who supplies Audrey II's thunderously demanding voice, and Dino Palazzi, the hands that bring the leafy monster to life, for this success. Sure, the plant often upstages the steady cast, but it is supposed to. These actors have to be comfortable in its fat, green shadow, and they seem to be.
This production (a county premiere) also benefits from director Brad Moranz, who spent two years in the original Broadway show as Seymour, the nebbish flower shop clerk who unwittingly becomes Audrey II's accomplice. He understands that "Little Shop of Horrors" must have a campy vitality. There are moments when the pace could be more daring and accelerated, but all in all, Moranz keeps the throttle in the right spot.
He is lucky to have Michael Vodde and Tricia Grose in the central roles of Seymour and Audrey. Vodde is the quintessential nerd, pretty bright but prone to bad decisions.
His worst is befriending Audrey II and meeting the demands of its voracious appetite. At first, the plant's satisfied with a few drops of blood from Seymour's pinkie, but soon enough Audrey II wants more. What has happened to Seymour's overbearing boss (Joseph Cardinale) and Audrey's sadistic dentist boyfriend (the wickedly crazed Jeffrey Rockwell)? Gulp.
As Audrey, Seymour's love interest from afar, Grose is great fun. With her mincing, high-heeled walk, squeaked-out Betty Boop voice and constantly astonished expressions, Grose is always amusing, and at times even touching. Her solo on "Somewhere That's Green" and the duet with Vodde on "Suddenly, Seymour" captures both the character's cartoon sensibility and very human longing.
The show prospers in the portrayals, but the singing is also capable enough. Grose and Rockwell are strong, Vodde and Cardinale get by, and, after a slow start, the doo-wop trio (Sandy Terry, Donna Kay and Lita Gaithers) puts some punch in many of the numbers.
Talk about clout, Audrey II (Kleber) really rumbles the place with his basso delivery of "Suppertime." Somebody better feed that plant, OK?
'LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS'
A Harlequin Dinner Playhouse production of the Howard Ashman/Alan Menken musical. Directed by Brad Moranz. With Michael Vodde, Tricia Grose, Donna Kay, Lita Gaithers, Sandy Terry, Joseph Cardinale, Jeffrey Rockwell and Richard Kleber. Audrey II manipulated by Dino Palazzi. Sets by Mark Laskowski. Choreography by Jennifer Hammond. Musical director D. Jay Bradley. Lighting by Monique L'Heureux. Costumes by Brian DeLapp. Plays Tuesdays through Thursdays at 8:15 p.m. (dinner at 6:30 p.m.), Fridays at 9 p.m. (dinner at 7:15 p.m.), Saturday at 8:30 p.m. (dinner at 6:30 p.m.) and Sunday at 7:30 p.m. (dinner at 5:45 p.m.) with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 1 p.m. (brunch at 11:15 p.m.) through Sept. 18. The theater is at 3503 S. Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana. Tickets: $23.50 to $32. (714) 979-5511.