Boppin' and Shakin', Little Shop of Horrors is the Ultimate Little Show That Could

The set-up:

Alan Menken and Howard Ashman's funky little musical spoof has been around so long (1982) - it's played off-Broadway, on Broadway, and in regional theaters too numerous to count - that it's taken on the cult status of Oklahoma or South Pacific. In a co-production with Music Box Musicals, MJR Theatricals dusts off this cheesy, cheery sensation and supplies just the right amount of tongue-in-cheek. The show's a delight to begin with, and MJR keeps the delight boppin' and shakin'.

The execution:

Nebbish Seymour (Michael J. Ross), down on his luck and everything else at Mushnik's florist store on Skid Row, sells his soul to a man-eating alien plant (William Martin and Thomas Schanding) to get fame, fortune, and the girl of his dreams (Kristina Sullivan). Lovingly knocked off from Roger Corman's bargain-basement 1960 B-movie comedy, this low-rent show with high-rent irony soars thanks to Ashman's ultra-clever book and lyrics and Menken's soft '60s rock-infused score that keeps us tapping our feet. The show ran for 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.

Co-directed by Ross and Adam Delka, who doubles as zippy choreographer, this is parody of the highest order, with its own special attitude, and MJR zooms through this smart little show as if roller-blading. The ride is infectious.

The cast throws itself into this cartoon world with abandon and pitch-perfect characterization, starting off with the zany backup trio of Doo-Wop girls (Arianna Bermudez, Beth Lazarou, and Teresa Zimmermann), who show up throughout as a knowing Greek chorus, commenting on Seymour's deadly predicament. They come dressed as The Supremes, or high school co-eds, or writhing sex kittens, whatever the mood at the moment might be. When they rise from below the window of Mushnik's shop, preceded by their glittering, sky-high blue beehives, they're the coolest chicks in town.

A perfect Seymour, Ross is delightfully - there's that word again - nerdy, goofy, and loveable. He's also a superb singer and performer, wiggling like Tevye in Fiddler with harassed Mushnik (Houston musical pro Jimmy Phillips) during "Mushnik and Son," or serenading the blood-thirsty plant Audrey II in "Grow for Me" with a lover's heartbreaking ardor. As Seymour's dream girl, Sullivan radiates kewpie-doll charm and sweet sexiness, and gets to wear a kaleidoscope of animal-print outfits, each more tacky and skin-tight than the last. It's an ongoing visual gag that she carries off without batting a false eyelash.

There's no way to play Audrey's sadistic boyfriend, Orin the dentist, without going over the edge, so Luke Wrobel blows past the cliff like Wile E. Coyote. He enters in full Elvis mode, silly as anything, but deliciously right. He's scary psychotic in his bad wig, frightening the adults, as he sucks on his nitrous oxide bottle and giggles serenely. In a variety of quick-change comedy roles, Wrobel returns in Act II as a reporter, Mrs. Luce of Time newspaper fame, and a sleazy agent - all out to ride on Seymour's growing fame and wanting to get a piece of him.

Phillips, meanwhile, plays Mushnik like an old Catskills trouper. He's his own cast of Fiddler; hell, he's the entire cast of Fiddler.

And then there's Audrey II, demanding more and more blood from Seymour. With each transfusion, more of Seymour's dreams come true - he gets a raise, then fame, possible adoption from Mushnik, then Audrey's love. Wheedling his way into Semour's conscience, Audrey II is one nasty piece of vegetation. As the malevolent plant grows, it gets funnier looking, with fangs and gigantic furry red mouth. Mr. Martin (voice) threatens in basso profundo, singing way low down, too, as Shanding (puppeteer) apes his sound. "Feed Me" and "Suppertime" are appropriate highlights, real Motown lowdown.

The verdict:

Full of wit and tons of swingin' showbiz attitude, MJR/Music Box's Little Shop is the ultimate little show that could. It charms with enthusiasm, without breaking a sweat. When it's produced as well as this, there's no reason why it shouldn't rival any of the big boy classics.

Menken and Ashman's breezy and green musical romps through August 31 at Music Box Theater, 2623 Colquitt. Purchase tickets online at themusicboxtheater.com or call 713-522-7722. $27-$37.

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