Garden of Eaten

A plant that thrives on human blood, an innocent botanist looking for a break in life and a blond beauty with the IQ of Miracle-Gro are main ingredients of Arizona Theatre Company's current theatrical feast, the funny, grisly musical Little Shop of Horrors.

Made into a movie starring Rick Moranis and Ellen Greene in 1986, this affectionate lampoon of the horror-movie genre (specifically, the 1960 Roger Corman film of the same name) pokes fun at science gone berserk, girl groups of the '60s and the ideals of suburban life. Written by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken (who later collaborated on such Disney hits as The Little Mermaid, Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast), this 1982 hit borrows music styles from the Supremes, Elvis and Stephen Sondheim and suffuses them with an epic tale told on a personal level.

Seymour, the proverbial nice guy, works in Mr.Mushnik's Skid Row flower shop. Business is dreadful, and Mr. Mushnik is ready to close the doors when Seymour reveals an unusual plant he recently purchased that "looks like some kind of flytrap." Seymour names the plant Audrey II, after a florist co-worker, Audrey, of whom Seymour is enamored. After Seymour proves this strange plant can attract paying customers, Mr. Mushnik allows Audrey II to be put on prominent display.

The rest of the story focuses on how this plant brings Seymour fame and fortune. Of course, these rewards are not without cost. Because Audrey II seems to thrive only on human blood, and because Seymour has only so much plasma to offer, it isn't long before he must seek other humans to satiate the voracious plant.

Though the characters are charming, each possesses a dark side. None is completely innocent or worthy of the audience's unqualified devotion. Seymour is adorable, yet allows himself to be seduced into committing murder. Audrey is cute and sweet, but allows herself to be a pawn. Mr. Mushnik appears to be a grandfatherly sort, but ends up exploiting Seymour for profit. Even the members of the girl trio that narrates the show turn out tobe grade school dropouts who sell information about others to get ahead.

Such cynical characters make it difficult to feel moved by the story.
The music is upbeat and full of clever lyrics, but--with the exception of "Prologue" and "Suddenly, Seymour"--none of the melodies is memorable. ATC's capable musicians, led by musical director Jerry Wayne Harkey, wail on "Feed Me" and "Call Back in the Morning." However, the instruments, especially Robin Vining's guitar, frequently overpower the voices and leave the audience straining to follow Ashman's well-crafted lyrics.

Despite some flaws in the show itself, ATC's production emphasizes the positives with fast-paced, high-energy performances. Director David Ira Goldstein has mounted a marvelous production. Working on a wonderfully cartoonish stage designed by Tom Butsch, Goldstein and his actors produce that eerie, campy feel of the horror flicks from a generation ago.

As the narration trio, Bambi Jones, Sharon Leal and Kimberly Hawthorne bring the sound and attitude of the streets of New York City, shining on "Prologue" and attacking "The Meek Shall Inherit." All three handle their walk-on roles with mischievous charm.

John Allee, as Seymour, is the perfect nerd with a mission. Allee's comic timing and forlorn expressions keep Seymour light and fun. He also shows his ability to dance with a vegetable during "Don't It Go to Show Ya Never Know."

As manipulator of Audrey II, which grows to the size of a small automobile, Ed Fusco brings this vine to life with smooth, humanlike movements. Dennis Rowland, as the voice of Audrey II, is not always as ominous as one might expect a man-eating plant to be, but his Motown singing rocks the house during "Feed Me."

Playing multiple roles of both genders, John Schiappa shows his enormous versatility. Schiappa plays four roles during the song "The Meek Shall Inherit," changing accents and costumes with precision timing, demonstrating the transformational qualities of an accomplished performer. Schiappa also plays the Elvis-inspired Orin, a sadistic dentist who gives himself nitrous oxide during dental procedures--not to ease his patients' pain, but to enhance his experience as the pain-giver.

But the evening belongs to the darling of Valley stages, Debby Rosenthal. Using her piercing voice and her ability to milk a comic song lyric, Rosenthal is mesmerizing as Audrey. In the song "Somewhere That's Green," Rosenthal takes the role of a housewife to a level it was never meant to go, and keeps the audience hanging on every word. Her booming voice brings both shivers and tears in Little Shop's showstopper, "Suddenly, Seymour." Rosenthal is an exceptional talent, and it's good to see ATC giving audiences the chance to enjoy this local performer in such a first-rate production.

Arizona Theatre Company's production of Little Shop of Horrors continues through Saturday, January 20, in Center Stage at Herberger Theater Center, 222 East Monroe.

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Gerald Thomson