Sadism by the Sea

What's not to like in a musical in which a sadistic dentist wears motorcycle leathers, sniffs nitrous oxide like people inhale sinus medicine, sports a DA the envy of Elvis and, brandishing dubious drills, curls his upper lip to say, "When I start extracting those molars / You girls will be screaming like holy rollers"? And he's not even the lead in the award-winning Little Shop of Horrors, the nifty little 1982 romantic comedy-cum-horror show by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, the wits responsible for the songs in The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. Horrors is the only stage musical they created together, and it is indeed a hoot; it even includes a Greek chorus in the form of a trio of black female doo-woppers and an evil Venus flytrap that sizes up the dentist thusly: "If you wanna be profound / If you really gotta justify / Take a breath and look around / A lotta folks deserve to die."

Based on Roger Corman's cheesy non-musical film of the same name (in which a young Jack Nicholson debuted), Horrors tells the fantastic tale of what happens when a strange plant suddenly appears at Mushnik's Skid Row Florists in New York City, circa 1962. The tiny flytrap is found by Seymour, Mushnik's nerdy clerk; he cares for the plant and even names it, calling it Audrey II in amorous tribute to his co-worker Audrey, a peroxided bimbo who's involved with Orin, the abusive dentist. Seymour's careful nurturing causes Audrey II to grow and grow and grow; as the plant gains size and fame, Seymour's prospects improve. Business at Mushnik's picks up as customers flock in to see the odd flytrap, Seymour becomes famous, and the human Audrey gives her once-ignored fellow clerk another look. But there's a hitch: Audrey II, who talks, but only to Seymour, survives on fresh human blood. What will Seymour do when his pin-pricked fingers aren't sufficient sustenance anymore?

Ashman's book and lyrics, and Menken's music, send up and pay tribute to B-movies, supermarket novels and a whole variety of other kitsch. To tango music, Mushnik, the flower shop's owner, adopts orphan Seymour in response to the business his Audrey II draws: "I never liked him much before / But count the cash that's in the drawer." To plaintive piano chords, dumb blond Audrey reveals her dream

f a tract house off the interstate, in which "There's plastic on the furniture / To keep it neat and clean / And there is Pine-sol

cented air / Somewhere that's green." This is smart camp.
Similarly smart is the Galveston Island Outdoor Musicals' production at the lovingly restored Grand 1894 Opera House (double mezzanines, brass railings, velvet curtains everywhere -- even opera boxes in which wait-ers serve champagne). Ed Kross' Seymour is a likable schlemiel, insecure and hapless. For "Suddenly, Seymour," a ballad he renders stirringly with Audrey (Gina Biancardi), the actor rips off his Clark Kent glasses -- and squints. He rounds out notes most effectively. Biancardi, talking like a gutter ditz but singing like a nightclub pro, alternately squeaks and shines, effortlessly switching gears, and boom-di-ays around the stage as much as Audrey's trashy clothes allow.

Ron Taylor originated the role of Audrey II in New York, performing the part for five years and winning a Drama Desk Award in the process. The Galveston native's big, booming bass makes the flytrap an imposing presence and, while he's not yet as deliciously evil here as he was in his Broadway performance, it's a safe bet that over the course of the run he'll become fully menacing.

Maria Becoates-Bey, DeBorah Sharpe and Janet Williams Adderley perform the choral trio like, say, the Shirelles, though they'd benefit from toning down their embellishments. Jim Albaugh is a comical sonuvabitch dentist, but he fails at shading the character with the demonic Elvis overtones called for in the script. Both he and Robert Larry Miller, who plays the opportunistic shopkeeper Mushnik, are better with dialogue than songs.

Director M. Seth Reines' major coup, other than lining up his principal cast, was obtaining the affectionately seedy set provided by Theatre Under The Stars. Tenement walk-ups, boarded-over windows, rickety fire escapes and infested dumpsters surround the divey, smudgy floral shop -- and then this street scene revolves to reveal a brick alley and a dungeon of a dentist's office. This technical marvel compensates for various glitches: lighting designer Gary L. Marlin's overdependence on spotlights; music director Art Yelton's failure to use the bongo drums that could give a needed lilt to the sound; choreographer Jim Albaugh's overreliance on gestures and underreliance on footwork.

Still, the larger-than-life and sublimely grotesque Audrey II puppets are as eye-catching as those in the movie-musical version. Horrors is the perfect antidote to the bah humbug musical-hating crowd. Charming in an innocently wicked way, Galveston's production nails the essential appeal of Ashman's and Menken's Horrors: savvy schlock.

Little Shop of Horrors runs through August 21 at The Grand 1894 Opera House, 2020 Postoffice Street, Galveston. (800) 54-SHOWS or (409) 737-3440.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Peter Szatmary