Kill Me, Seymour!
It's official. Audrey II, that man-eating plant from Little Shop of Horrors, will never, ever die. In 1982, Howard Ashman and Alan Menken's chirpy musical, about an evil plant that takes over the world, blossomed off Broadway in a small 350-seat theater. It was quite the little hit. Modestly funny and full of 1960s-style bouncy tunes, the show seemed so new and charming at the time. Since then it's been done so often, by so many theaters (many right here in Houston), you'd think it would have died by now from all that exposure to the blazing lights of overexposure. Instead, it's proved to be a pugnacious perennial; it just keeps coming back every season or so in a "new" rendition, like the one now running at Sarofim Hall at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts.
Directed by Jerry Zaks, this touring production tries hard to grow the little show into a musical big enough to fit into theaters that seat more than 2,500, like Sarofim Hall. But the story line is so simple, the handful of characters so typical, and the music so doo-woppy, that the show taking place in the familiar flower shop on skid row never quite manages to fill up the enormous auditorium.
The plot centers on poor Seymour, played by understudy Jim Poulos on opening night. He's a horn-rimmed-glasses-wearing kind of lonely heart who's never had much of a chance in the world. Raised as an orphan, he works under the hard thumb of grumpy shop owner Mr. Mushnik (Lenny Wolpe). Seymour secretly loves Audrey (Tari Kelly), a sweet, bubble-headed blond who also toils for Mushnik, when she's not out on the town with her "semi-sadist" boyfriend. Orin (James Moye) is the kind of jerk who gives his lady friends black eyes and busted arms -- a shtick that's supposed to be funny, but just isn't, hard as Moye works to make the tired joke amusing.
All in all, this group of florists and friends is a pretty miserable bunch -- success eludes them in their run-down neighborhood. The only thing they have going for them is some great backup in the form of three street-urchin girls who hang around outside the shop singing in '60s girl group-style. They provide plenty of entertaining musical filler as the story bounces along.
But just about all the characters are broke and down-trodden losers (even the girl group is a bunch of dropouts). Everybody sings about wanting off skid row. That changes when Seymour finds a new species of plant during an eclipse and brings it back to the shop. Suddenly everyone starts finding success, because the whole world wants to see Seymour's strange horticultural discovery.
In a Faustian twist, good-hearted Seymour eventually finds himself beholden to the odd, insatiable flower, which eats only human blood and is constantly booming "Feed me!" in a baritone voice. Seymour gets a book deal, interviews, his own TV show. But as the plant grows bigger and bigger, it needs more and more blood, and bad -- very bad, but kind-of-funny bad -- things begin to happen as a result.
The performers in this production do a fine job with the material they've got to work with, though none does anything new. Kelly's pretty Audrey is a curvy, breathy-voiced kitten. Her "Somewhere That's Green," a poignantly amusing song about how terrific the suburbs look when you're living on skid row, is the best number in the show.
As Seymour, Poulos looks perfectly cowed. The florist's crummy life would make anyone suicidal. All hunched over and worried, he scurries around the flower shop like a man well used to being harangued. But Poulos brings lots of wistful charm to the music, and he's delightful in "Mushnik and Son," which he sings with Wolpe's Mr. Mushnik. The two men dance about and make the most of the duet.
As Audrey's abusive boyfriend, Moye has the hardest job in the show. He has to try to make audiences laugh with one-liners about beating women. In the 23 years since this dialogue was created, we've learned enough about abuse to get squirmy during such exchanges. One group of women sitting behind me on opening night actually gasped after one of Orin's bad jokes. There's nothing any actor could do to make this stuff more palatable. And Moye proves his comic chops in other scenes where he's not having to threaten Audrey with a raised fist.
The entire cast is more than competent, but these performers aren't magicians. They can't make a big splashy arrangement out of something that was never meant to be more than a modest bouquet. No matter how enormous the plant gets, it will never be big enough for stadium-size theaters. This is one plant that really does need to die, at least for several seasons.
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