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Rice University Does Well by Little Shop of Horrors

The setup:

There is nothing little about Little Shop of Horrors, a comedic musical spoof by composer Alan Menken and writer Howard Ashman, a rock musical about a hapless florist shop worker who raises a plant that feeds on human blood and flesh. It made a fortune for its investors, running for five years, 1982 to 1987, at the Orpheum Theater in Manhattan's East Village and exiting as the highest grossing off-Broadway production in history. Nor is there anything little about its enduring ability to delight audiences, and the apparently universal appeal of its book, and its music.

The execution:

Rice University has given this gem the quality production it deserves. The setting is a downscale florist shop on skid row, and set designers Mark Krouskop and Jake LaViola, clearly brilliant, have created not only the shop, but the neighborhood, as a strongly three-dimensional set includes the buildings behind the skid row, graffiti on exterior walls, and "lounging" areas for impoverished denizens. Our hero is Seymour (Bryce Willey), shy and easily intimidated, in love with co-worker Audrey (Ariana Morgan), and working for the shop's owner, Mr. Mushnik (Curtis Barber).

Seymour is a demanding role, with the character onstage almost the entire time, and incorporating dancing, carrying Audrey in his arms, and making us like him and pull for him, even as his need to feed the plant, named Audrey II, leads him into criminal behavior. The youthful Willey handles all this with the polished ease of a pro, and delivers as well the psychological narrative of Seymour's growth into self-confidence, and romance. It is a wonderful performance.

Audrey has severe co-dependency issues, and is dating a sadistic dentist who abuses her, Orin (Roby Johnson), so she can't be the brightest bulb on the tree, but Morgan finds the needed vulnerability, delivers a winsome charm, and sings like an angel, with clarity and warmth. It's no wonder Seymour fell for her.

Mr. Mushnik is a demanding, even a bullying, boss, but Curtis Barber knows this is a comedy and not a Eugene O'Neill drama, and lets us enjoy and savor his excesses. His energy is high, delivery spot-on, and he makes even his deception and skulking entertaining. His tango with Seymour, "Mushnik and Son", as he offers to adopt Seymour to keep the newly successful business flourishing, is masterful. It's choreographed by Heather Nabors, and is probably the longest number in the show, and I wished it were even longer.

As the sadistic dentist, Johnson makes us hate and despise Orin, as required, and is quite good, but I did wonder if Orin might not have more of a youthful swagger, a la "The Fonz". Orin's struggle with a gas mask is memorable, and provides an emotionally satisfying moment.

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You probably know the song, but "Suddenly, Seymour" has poignance, credibility and sweet nuance as Seymour and Audrey find their love. There is a doo-wop trio (Tristina Bryant, Rachel Buissereth, and Tasneem Islam) and they sing beautifully and look stunning in dresses with a hint of glam in reflective collars and hems - costume design is by Sarah Normoyle and Daniel Burns. Unseen but talented are Cassandra Barrett operating the carnivorous plant, and Faith Shapiro delivering Audrey II's voice.

Phil Nichols designed and built Audrey II, who grows increasingly larger as she is fed, and he has captured the sense of half avocado and half monster. The highly effective lighting design is by Brett Berger. The entire production team is to be commended, from the great four piece orchestra (Jack Beetle, Matthew Bernhard, David Lerner and Ryan Roberts) to the producers Christina Keefe and Michael Hollis, and especially the director George Brock, who has carved this into a winning jewel of a production.

The verdict:

You may have seen this contemporary classic before, but a return visit is more than warranted, as Rice has found and delivered the joy and pleasure in this enduring fable. If you haven't yet seen it, here's the chance to treat yourself to a wonderfully exciting and moving theatrical experience. Little Shop of Horrors continues through April 19 at Hamman Hall, Rice University, 6100 Main Street, Rice Boulevard, Entrance 20 & 21. For information or ticketing, call 713-348-4005 or contact www.theatre.rice.edu.

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