Wilted Maneater

Klinger cavorts with the carnivorous plant.
Charlie Erickson

Six years ago, the Alley started its Summer Chills season, usually consisting of two lightweight mysteries. Theater, it seems, is like food; nothing too heavy for the sizzling summer months.

The salad-weight fare offered this year is even more kid-friendly than the previous summers of Agatha Christie whodunits. Howard Ashman and Allen Menken's 1982 off-Broadway hit Little Shop of Horrors — a crowd-pleasing bit of fluff about a man-eating plant that takes over the world — has taken over this entire Exxon Summer Chills season.

Written by the same men who made shrimp sing and dishes dance in The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, Little Shop makes for a fine family outing even if this production seems to be running a bit low on gas.

Director Gregory Boyd has brought together the original designers of the 1982 show and they've created a nifty 1950s look on the Alley stage for the sci-fi musical. Sally Lesser has dressed the characters with sweet whimsy and nostalgia. Shod in saddle oxfords and Chuck Taylors, dressed in bobby socks and tight sweaters, the characters talk in long-ago slang.

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"Urchins" (Kia Joy Goodwin, Daria Hardeman and Angela Robinson) hang out on the street, explaining why they aren't in school: "Man, we're on the split shift."

"We went to school till fifth grade. Then we split."

These are the citizens of "skid row," where the play takes place. Set designer Edward T. Gianfrancesco has captured a cartoon quality with his sad little alley framed by concrete steps, red brick walls, tin garbage cans, and — standing at center stage — Mushnik's dilapidated flower shop.

Of course, business at the shop is bad. Nobody in the neighborhood can afford dinner, much less daffodils. But we meet Mushnik (played with great grouchy glee by Charles Krohn) and his workers in the middle of trying to cope with an empty cash register. Audrey (Audrey Klinger), the blond, buxom, sweet-tart flower arranger, and shuffling Seymour (Jamison Stern), who spends his glasses-wearing-days futzing in the back with the plants, dream of better days. They are also a little bit in love.

Audrey, who's been around the block a time or two, "suffers from a low self image" and believes she doesn't deserve a guy as good as Seymour. And Seymour can't believe a girl as gorgeous as Audrey could fall in love with him. There's the little problem of Audrey's mean and nasty boyfriend Orin (John Feltch), who delights in bashing her about. She can't leave him because, as she wisely points out, if he beats her when he's happy with her, imagine what he'd do if he were mad.

All seems hopeless until Seymour discovers a strange and unusual plant, and the whole world starts clamoring to see it. The shop gets famous; Seymour gets famous. Audrey's boyfriend turns up missing. The plant, ironically named Audrey II, expands as more people turn up missing. Audrey II grows as big as the shop. Once Seymour goes down the road of destruction, there's no turning back. This sci-fi morality tale has all the good lessons of a Disney movie.

But the timing and the energy in this production are off. This is the sort of a silly show (though it does have its dark moments) that sinks or swims on the absolute joy of the performers. Without a childlike exuberance coming from every corner of the stage, there isn't enough in the script to rivet any audience member over the age of ten.

This competent cast looks and sounds perfect (Ken Prymus is especially good as the voice of Audrey II). But the overall effect never reaches those giddy heights that a show of this caliber needs to leave its audience in ear-to-ear grins as they make their way back into the simmering summer night.

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