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THEATER REVIEW

Dinner is served

When the touring company of 'Little Shop of Horrors' feeds L.A. a seductive monster whose appetite knows no bounds, laughs are just deserts.

August 31, 2004|Daryl H. Miller | Times Staff Writer

Forget photosynthesis. Put away the Miracle-Gro.

The nefarious plant in "Little Shop of Horrors" doesn't want any normal sort of food. It has a taste for flesh and, as its hunger grows, it comes to regard the human race as one vast meat counter.

The potted piranha is really just a big showoff, though. It craves applause more than anything else, and it's eating well at the Ahmanson Theatre, where its performance -- ooh, that sexy voice; aah, those gym-toned tendrils -- has prompted a veritable feeding frenzy.

"Little Shop" took root off-Broadway in 1982 and helped launch a mini-revolution in musical theater that today delivers such irreverent projects as "Bat Boy," "Urinetown" and, perhaps most notable, "Hairspray." Now on tour, last year's Broadway revival of "Little Shop" has come to Los Angeles with a high-energy cast that includes Anthony Rapp, best known for originating the role of Mark in "Rent," as Seymour.

The story takes place in what appears to be about 1960, the year that witnessed the release of the quickie Roger Corman film on which the musical is based. To that off-kilter tale, librettist Howard Ashman and composer Alan Menken added an infectious doo-wop- and Motown-flavored score.

A chilling yet strangely cheery tone is immediately established by a trio of street urchins (LaTonya Holmes, Amina S. Robinson and Yasmeen Sulieman) who sing the title song in the high, tight harmonies of the Shirelles or the Supremes. "Bop sh'bop / you'll never stop the terror," they chirp, smiling as they sway their hips and wag their fingers in unison.

The horror begins, innocently enough, in an impoverished florist's shop on a skid row that set designer Scott Pask has rendered in the chunky pen-and-ink manner of a comic book. Desultorily operated by one Mr. Mushnik (Lenny Wolpe), the place is on the verge of closing when the squeaky-voiced, peroxide blond salesgirl, Audrey (Tari Kelly), says -- in humorously stilted B-movie style -- to her co-worker: "Seymour, why don't you run in back and bring out that strange and interesting new plant you've been working on?"

Thus begins a series of events that dazzle the shop's workers with dreams of romance and success while unleashing the voracious Audrey II (named after the girl for whom the lovelorn Seymour quietly yearns) on an unsuspecting public.

The inherent honesty and nerd-boy charm that Rapp brought to "Rent" works equally well for him here. Singing with just a touch of adenoidal whine in his otherwise smooth, pop voice, he is a lovable loser, with hangdog expressions forever pulling at the corners of his boyish face.

The girl of his dreams speaks in an ear-assaulting New York wail of a voice. When Kelly begins to sing, though, she's a lustrous diva with a powerhouse vibrato. It's hard to believe such a big voice can issue from such a tiny body. The performance forges a powerful link to the similarly power-piped performance by Ellen Greene, who starred in the original production and went on to costar in the 1986 movie musical made from the show.

The center of attention, though, is the monstrous plant -- part Venus' flytrap, part serrated-leaf cactus -- that Martin P. Robinson has envisioned as Audrey II. (Robinson too is a link to the original, as designer of Audrey II's first off-Broadway incarnations.)

It's fun to track the changes as a normal-size potted plant, held in two hands, grows into a fanged monstrosity that snakes its coffin-sized yellow-green snout two stories into the air. Its deep, Barry White-like voice -- dripping with seduction as it urges "Feed me all night long" -- is provided from offstage by Michael James Leslie.

Director Jerry Zaks is known for his canny humor and high-gloss sensibilities. Here, he delivers laughs aplenty, as when the urchins suddenly appear in full "Dreamgirls" mode, though occasionally he pushes too hard. The stuck-clock gag is barely funny the first time, Jerry, let alone the second or third.

Kathleen Marshall contributes deft, understated choreography, especially in a comic bit of bonding between Seymour and Mushnik that is part tango, part Jewish folk dance.

At Sunday's opening, a chance bit of misfortune developed into a full-blown curse when a glide-on piece of scenery missed its cue, much as happened at the press performance of "Intimate Apparel" at the Ahmanson's sister theater, the Mark Taper Forum. Confused, some audience members left for what seemed an early intermission, but the show resumed after a five-minute pause and quickly regained its momentum.

Driven by the classic-rock styling of an unseen 10-player band, "Little Shop of Horrors" really sings for its supper. Though the final chorus -- sung as little Audrey IIs make their way around the Earth -- warns, "Don't feed the plants," you probably won't be able to hold back the nourishing applause.

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

'Little Shop of Horrors'

Where: Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles

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