Comic But Cramped

Silly and slight, Howard Ashman and Alan Menken's Little Shop of Horrors has found a perfect venue in The Great Caruso Dinner Theater. Among the thick prime rib and crunchy white dinner rolls, the show's goofy songs about sadistic dentists and man-eating plants make a certain kind of carnivorous sense.

Based on a film by Roger Corman, the wacky sci-fi story follows the downfall of Seymour (Chris Zelko) and Audrey (Deanna Julian), two "misfit employees" of Mushnik's skanky "Skid Row" flower shop. Nerdy Seymour is a back room botanist who spends his days "tinkering around" with exotic plants. Audrey is a sweet, tight-skirt hottie who runs the register and gets involved with badass men. They're in love with each other but are too shy to say so. Audrey spends her evenings with her violent dentist boyfriend, and Seymour spends his with plants. As if things weren't bad enough, Mushnik has to tell his motley crew of two that business is lousy and he's closing down the place for good.

Seymour saves the day by finding a strange flower that should attract more business. Of course, that's when the real trouble starts. Audrey II, as the evil thing is called, takes Seymour down a hellish path to death and destruction that doesn't end till the space plant has eaten Cleveland, Peoria and New York.

All this is utterly inane. But Phillip Duggins has put together a terrific cast of singers who revel in the goofiness of this ridiculous story. The street "urchins" who act as a sort of doo-woppy singing and narrating Greek chorus -- T.K. Ferguson, Aisha Ussery, Beth Lazarou and Allison Sumrall -- are full of harmonizing fire. They strut out in sequins and high heels and burn up the tiny Caruso stage with their yummy voices. Zelko as the nasally Seymour makes a charming dork. And Julian carries a doe-eyed, sexy innocence and sings with her usually lovely voice.

Technically the show suffers in the tiny playing area. Duggins didn't make good use of the other playing areas in the theater. The most successful shows at The Great Caruso have pulled the singers off the sliver of a stage and into the sea of dinner tables. Had Duggins taken advantage of the expansive dining room, the production would've come off less cramped. As it is, the actors are often jammed elbow to elbow on the tiny platform called a stage.

Even with the script limitations, the music and the oddball atmosphere of the venue, this Little Shop of Horrors is a lot of goofy fun.

Local writer Fernando Dovalina's first full-length script, The Man in the Trunk, makes a surprisingly compelling debut at Unhinged Productions. Ultimately odd and compelling, the story starts off in some rather hackneyed territory. Middle-aged and wealthy, Frank and Cozy Mitchell are celebrating their anniversary at a party marked with monologues of bitching about everything from the kids to the family-run business.

Their friends include the buttoned-up Randy Wilson (Kelly Williams), a gay caterer who has been Frank's best bud since high school; Annie Gutierres (Yvonne Aguirre), a sloppy-drunk copy editor who's sleeping with Frank and squeals every time someone makes a grammatical error in their speech; and frumpy Martha Hughes (Susan Oltmanns-Koozin), also middle-aged and deeply disappointed with what life has offered in the way of love. This first scene is full of jokes about language and Frank's waning sexual appetite. The script slogs along until the five decide to leave the party. Frank offers to ride in the trunk of Randy's car because there isn't enough room in front for everyone. Suddenly Dovalina's script moves into some wonderfully innovative territory.

Frank's anxieties about life become clear in the strange speeches he makes from the trunk of the car. He's afraid of not being able to see what's coming, of being stuck in one place, of being in the dark. All these fears signify much deeper troubles, for Frank and Cozy have been blindsided by their son's accidental death. They never saw it coming, and now they're stuck together, groping through the darkness of their anger and grief.

Through these discoveries, the people up front continue making jokes about the sour grapes of middle age and the strange things we do with language: Annie screams out, "I love alliteration!" every time she hears it. Some of Dovalina's jokes are very funny. He gets a lot of mileage out of his characters' attempts to be politically correct: There are "Mexican-Americans," "Asian-Americans" and "faggot-Americans." The last hyphenated appellation elicited huge guffaws from Unhinged Productions' mostly gay audience. The tender moments get stronger as the play enters the second act. As we learn more about Frank and Cozy and the death of their son, they become richer, more powerful characters.

Director Chris Jimmerson's cast is a rough bunch. Deborah Hope gives the surest performance with her Cozy, a frayed, type-A suburban witch with a heart that has been crushed by grief and guilt. Cozy is the chilly mom who looks good from a distance but is bone-hard to the touch.

Paul Locklear is likable as the softhearted Frank, but he comes off a bit amateurish next to Hope. He often pauses at odd places in his speeches, and he seems unsure what to do with his arms and hands. Aguirre makes Annie such an annoyingly high-pitched drunk that it's impossible to believe she could be a copy editor -- or a compelling lover.

But even in the hands of this fairly weak cast, Dovalina's script shows much promise. The former assistant managing editor of the Houston Chronicle seems to have found a new career in theater.

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Lee Williams