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Theater Review

'Little Shop' in a big venue

July 17, 2009|David C. Nichols

The crowd-pleasing aspects of "Little Shop of Horrors" at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center gradually bloom, despite some deforestation and weeds along the way. Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman's evergreen 1982 musical about an extraterrestrial plant with a man-eating appetite closes Musical Theatre West's 56th season in agreeable fashion.

Adapted from Roger Corman's 1960 B-movie, the original "Little Shop" ran 2,209 performances off-Broadway, spawning Frank Oz's 1986 movie version and so many regional editions that its 2003 Broadway premiere was deemed a revival by the Tony Awards committee.

Director Steven Glaudini follows that template, using the Broadway sets and costumes and the puppets from the recent national tour.

"Little Shop" unfolds in a kitschy urban netherworld (grittily lighted by Jean Yves-Tessier), where a sassy girl-group trio (Fredericka Meek, Kamilah Marshall and Meloney Collins) comments throughout. Set designer Scott Pask creates a skewed, New Yorker-magazine-cover skid row around the bedraggled florist's shop where orphaned Seymour Krelborn (Danny Gurwin), virtual indentured servant of ever-kvetching Mr. Mushnik (Stuart Pankin), makes an odd botanical discovery after a solar eclipse.

Named Audrey II for battered fellow employee Audrey (Lowe Taylor), Seymour's secret crush, the cute little plant fails to flourish -- until Seymour pricks his finger on a rose, and his corpuscles get Audrey II's undivided attention. The subsequent growth spurts cause business to boom, Mr. Mushnik to adopt Seymour, and Audrey to rethink her relationship with abusive Orin Scrivello, DDS (Peter Paige). The only snag: Audrey II's limitless hunger for human blood, as Ashman's libretto evolves into a darkly comic morality tale.

Gurwin endearingly pulls his boyish appeal and soaring pipes into schlub territory, while the wonderful Taylor underplays Audrey's kewpie-doll squeak and gives her emotions free rein, hushing the house at "Somewhere That's Green." When these adorable misfits tear into "Suddenly, Seymour," the audience properly erupts.

Meek, Marshall and Collins begin a tad too carefully as the trio, but their harmonies blossom with each number. They get down with choreographer D.J. Gray's shoop-shoop moves, the Act 2 nod to "Dreamgirls" -- perhaps costumer William Ivey Long's most tickling wink.

The show's star, of course, is that ruthless vegetation, voiced by Michael A. Sheppard and manipulated by James W. Gruessing with an apt mix of snarl and snap. At times, the amplification muddies Ashman's lyrics, though generally musical director Daniel Thomas serves Menken's candied score well.

More problematic is the fuzzy tone, inevitable when staging a compact show in a capacious venue. Paige, for example, is game but at least two sizes too low-key for over-the-top Orin, though drolly amusing as Everyone Else, and Pankin's Jiminy Glick-flavored fat suit contains a proficient yet pro-forma Mushnik.

Nor can the technical effects engulf the theater, with the "Don't Feed the Plants" finale staying stuck at the footlights. Still, if the sensation is sometimes like watching a hybrid nosegay cavorting in a giant terrarium, there's unpretentious fun afoot, though purists and vegans may disagree.

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'Little Shop of Horrors'

Where: Carpenter Performing Arts Center, 6200 Atherton St., Long Beach

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Also, 2 p.m. Saturday and July 25, 7 p.m. Sunday. Ends July 26.

Price: $30-$58

Contact: (562) 856-1999, Ext. 4, or www.musical.org

Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes

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