You don't go to Dionysus Theatre for slick. That's for the big boys downtown. The sets are rudimentary, if not downright cut-and-paste; the lighting is sketchy; and the direction concentrates on getting the actors out of the way. You don't expect shattering insights into the play's emotional core. This is bare-bones theater with an aura of let's-put-on-a-play. But there's one attribute Dionysus possesses that puts all other companies in the shade -- heart. No other company has such a visible response to putting on a show. You see it in the actors' faces. They're having a ball with all this make-believe, and their joy from performing is infectious, deliciously so.
Dionysus, if you may not know, is an "inclusive" company, a non-profit organization that weaves together actors who have disabilities with those who do not. This mesh of pros and not-so-pros adds up to something much better than you'd expect. Inspiration emanates from the stage like a halo, a theatrical aurora borealis. The positive light makes us giddy. Among Houston stages, this feel-good feeling is unique.
Cheery and cheesy, Alan Menken and Howard Ashman's funky little off-Broadway musical sensation, Little Shop of Horrors (1982), about nebbish Seymour (Michael J. Escamilla), who sells his soul to a man-eating alien plant (Theodore M.E. Taylor) to get fame, fortune, and the girl of his dreams (Julia Becker), is just the right material to showcase the particular talents of Dionysus. Lovingly knocked off from Roger Corman's bargain-basement 1960 B-movie, this low-rent show with high-rent irony soars, thanks to Ashman's tongue-in-cheek book and lyrics and Menken's soft '60s rock-infused score. The show ran for five years, and its success propelled the duo into the waiting arms of Disney, for whom they penned Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin, before Ashman's untimely death in 1991.
Dionysus puts over this delightful parody with its own special tongue-in-cheek attitude. Starting off with its backup Doo-Wop girls (shared by Lori Evans, Teresa Gallagher, Noriann Doguim, Mariann Cano and Monica Gaseor), who all catch the show's funky spirit with their poodle skirts and ponytails, the musical has a refreshing life of its own.
With his Steve Urkel-esque pants pulled up almost to his neck and sporting thick black-rimmed glasses, Escamilla makes nerdy Seymour goofy and loveable. His strong singing voice with its beguiling vibrato supplies an appealing lilt at the end of each phrase. His plea to his little ailing potted plant, "Grow for Me," is both from the heart and funny. As Seymour's pined-for inamorata Audrey, Becker radiates sweet sexiness with her kewpie-doll blond curls and breathy delivery. She's your typical innocent masochist next door, yearning for plastic-covered furniture and Pine-Sol scent in her delightful reverie "Somewhere That's Green."
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Ted Doollitle brings a Borscht Belt belt and vaudeville delivery to harried florist Mr. Mushnik; Andrew Barrett is comically menacing as sadist dentist Orin, Audrey's bad boy main squeeze; and Theodore Taylor (heard but not seen as human blood-loving Audrey II) gives this vampire plant from outer space a real downtown pizzazz. His lowdown versions of "Feed Me" and "Suppertime" are highpoints. The puppet plant, operated by Joshua Clark and Raymond Deeb, with its voracious toothed mouth and little leaf hands, is just what Audrey II should be -- big, bad, and loads of attitude. The rest of the cast is full of fun attitude, too: Shaun Linsey, Jayson White, Joshua Sims, and Jayson Looney, embody the musical's smiling charm and wit.
The show's abetted by some spirited moves choreographed by Cherita Judson and appropriate Skid Row costumes by ClareMarie Verheyen (Audrey's form-hugging "tasteful" clothes are perfect). But it's the cast whose high-flying spirits buoy us. Thanks to their unstoppable enthusiasm, we, along with the show, fly right with them.
Menken and Ashman's "little show that could," runs June 23, 24, 27, 28, and 30 at the Evelyn Rubenstein Jewish Community Center, 5601 South Braeswood. For more information, call 713-728-0041 or visit the company website. $10-$15.