Roger Corman's 1960 cult film classic became a long-running Off Broadway musical in 1982 when songwriters Howard Ashman and Alan Menken found an ideal way to satirize the material. East West Players has developed its own distinctive take on the story of a maniacal, man-eating plant, but the production never finds a clear, cohesive tone.

Roger Corman’s 1960 cult film classic became a long-running Off Broadway musical in 1982 when songwriters Howard Ashman and Alan Menken found an ideal way to satirize the grisly material. East West Players has developed its own distinctive take on the story of a maniacal, man-eating plant, but the production never finds a clear, cohesive tone. Scenes are either played too straight and serious or too exaggerated, and despite entertaining moments, the final result misses much of the humor in Ashman’s idiosyncratic libretto and lyrics.

At the center of the action is Seymour (Samuel Chen), an ingratiatingly clumsy nerd in glasses and baseball cap, who toils as a clerk at Mushnik’s Flower Shop on L.A.’s Skid Row and nurses a crush on sexy but sensitive co-worker Audrey (Kym Hoy). The shop, owned by tyrannical Mr. Mushnik (Dom Magwili), is going under until Seymour purchases a weird, exotic plant that intrigues customers and turns the business into a booming success. Seymour names the plant Audrey II after his dream girl, but the plant’s lust for blood and Seymour’s Faustian attempts to feed it create wholesale murder and mayhem.

Before Audrey II (superbly manipulated by Kurt Kuniyoshi, with rousing R&B vocals by Alexander Selma) starts to dominate and build up the evening’s body count, we get to know Audrey’s boyfriend, Orin (Ian Shen), a sadistic dentist who enjoys beating her up. Shen’s portrait of snarling evil is amusing, but his costume — black leather chaps and thong over a bare backside — is intrusive, more distracting than hilarious. Magwili lacks sharp comedy timing as Mushnik, and the girl trio — Ai Goeku, Blythe Matsui and Jenni Selma — sing well without catching the basic flavor of ’60s rock ‘n’ roll girl groups.

The show’s heart is Chen’s Seymour. From the moment Chen steps onstage and takes a pratfall over a pot of plants, we sympathize with his love for Audrey. Moving from awkward adulation to confidence and self-protective violence, the actor provides a firm, endearing center to the piece. He shines when telling Audrey, “You’re a nice person — underneath the handcuffs and bruises,” and he overcomes a basic lack of chemistry with co-star Hoy, a fine actress and singer who doesn’t project enough innocence or eccentricity. For all her charm, she doesn’t make us feel the deep mutual attraction and love for Seymour that Ellen Greene did in the original production and 1986 movie.

Ashman and Menken’s score remains witty and tuneful. Staging and performance of the group numbers pale beside such solos as Seymour’s “Grow for Me” and the touching “Suddenly Seymour,” easily the evening’s highlight. Audrey II’s “Suppertime” is a savage, chilling harangue about lethal hunger, and “Somewhere That’s Green” makes the most of Hoy’s talents as an actress.

Evan Bartoletti’s overly busy Skid Row set interferes with the effectiveness of the early numbers, but his later evocations of Mushnik’s thriving shop are appropriate and imaginative. Guido Girardi’s lighting is vivid, especially his eerie reds and greens on the “Feed Me” number, and the five-piece band maintains the right balance between theater music, rock and nostalgia.

Director Glen Chin supplies some standout touches, notably Mushnik’s toupee falling to the floor as the shop owner is devoured by Audrey II, and the sight of Shen’s dentist writhing around as he expires from laughing gas.

Little Shop of Horrors

East West Players; 241 seats; $60 top

Production

An East West Players presentation of a musical in two acts. Directed by Glen Chin. Music, Alan Menken. Book and lyrics, Howard Ashman.

Creative

Sets, Evan A. Bartoletti; lighting, Guido Girardi; sound, Kaname Morishita; costumes, Dori Quan; choreography, Betsy Chang; puppet designs, Michael Earl; musical direction, Scott Nagatani; production stage manager, Ricardo Figueroa. Opened, reviewed Feb. 5, 2003; runs through March 2. Running time: 2 HOURS.

Cast

Seymour - Samuel Chen Chiffon - Ai Goeku Audrey - Kym Hoy Audrey II manipulation - Kurt Kuniyoshi Mr. Mushnik - Dom Magwili Ronnette - Blythe Matsui Audrey II voice - Alexander Selma Crystal - Jenni Selma Orin, Bernstein, Snip, Luce and everyone else - Ian Shen

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