Little Shop of Horrors

The marketing ploy for this revival of "Little Shop of Horrors" is that Audrey II is ready to gobble up Broadway -- and the plant puppet is definitely approaching Godzilla proportions. More important, however, director Connie Grappo and choreographer Kathleen Marshall carefully resculpt the production around the creature to retain the show's compact, simple appeal as a gruesome Faustian flip side to "She Loves Me."

With:
Audrey - Alice Ripley Seymour - Hunter Foster Mushnik - Lee Wilkof Orin - Reg Rogers Audrey II (voice) - Billy Porter Chiffon - Moeisha McGill Crystal - Dioni Michelle Collins Ronnette - Haneefah Wood

The marketing ploy for this revival of “Little Shop of Horrors” is that Audrey II is a big girl now, ready to gobble up Broadway — and puppet designer Martin P. Robinson’s plant is definitely approaching Godzilla proportions. More important, however, director Connie Grappo and choreographer Kathleen Marshall carefully resculpt the production around the creature to retain the show’s compact, simple appeal as a gruesome Faustian flip side to “She Loves Me.”

Original puppet designer (and manipulator) Robinson is assisted by the Jim Henson New York Workshop in the creation of Audrey II. There are four in all, each brighter and more agile than her predecessor. The fourth and largest dominates the musical’s climactic moments, but won’t be able to show all her stuff until the production moves to Broadway’s Virginia Theater this summer.

Turns out the Miracle Theater’s stage won’t support the weight of the booms and counterweights necessary to send the creature out over the heads of the audience. Regional theater auds won’t be too disappointed, however; the long-necked monster fills the stage from wing to wing and orchestra pit to proscenium arch.

Some opening-night awkwardness involved the cast’s interaction with the flowered monster. With less than a week of previews, the ensemble was still finding its way among the technical odds and ends, and with each other as well.

But there’s no denying the late Howard Ashman’s sublime mixture of satire, parody and cautionary drama, or Alan Menken’s flavorful ’60s-era pop score. Grappo and Marshall tune in to those elements while gently expanding the action to fill the Broadway-size stage (not exactly a precedent, by the way: “Little Shop’s” mid-’80s tour, directed by Ashman, was designed for roadshow houses).

Lee Wilkof, the original Off Broadway Seymour, moves into the role of shop owner Mushnik. Though crusty in character, Wilkof defers gracefully to Hunter Foster as the new greenery geek. None of Foster’s “Urinetown” heroism has found its way to Skid Row; he’s the perfectly pitiful complement to Alice Ripley’s astonishingly ditzy Audrey.

The couple belts out “Suddenly Seymour” in the first act with all the panache of an 11 o’clock number, but it’s Ripley’s earlier, quiet hymnody on “Somewhere That’s Green” that stops the show. Reg Rogers gets all the laughs built into the role of the sadistic dentist Orin, and Billy Porter is a baritone voice for Audrey II, more seductive than the stereotypical thundering bass.

Choreographer Marshall establishes the production’s scale with the full cast of ghetto denizens for the scene-setting “Downtown Skid Row” near the top of the show. After that, the principals interact smartly with the sassy girl chorus trio.

Scenic designer Scott Pask’s Skid Row neighborhood has a desperate, dreary palette. Mushnik’s shop is the centerpiece. The set, costumes and especially the puppet designs significantly enhance the Actor’s Playhouse production, in tony Miami suburb Coral Gables. Though only the cast and puppets are moving to New York, Pask’s design concepts are said to reflect the New York production, and they suggest a dark, campy netherworld similar to the production design of the recent “Batman” films.

With a 10-piece musical ensemble (up from the original’s four), new arrangements by Henry Aronson and Danny Troob touch up the score, adding colors and undercurrents without sacrificing the punch. It remains, as ever, a sassy chamber (of horrors) musical.

Little Shop of Horrors

The Actor's Playhouse at the Miracle Theater, Coral Gables, Fla.; 600 seats; $40 top

Production: An Actor's Playhouse Prods. presentation of a musical in two acts with book and lyrics by Howard Ashman, music by Alan Menken, based on the 1961 FilmGroup (Roger Corman, director-producer) picture. Directed by Connie Grappo.

Creative: Choreography, Kathleen Marshall. Sets, Scott Pask; costumes, Laura Bauer; lighting, Donald Holder; sound, T. Richard Fitzgerald; puppets, the Jim Henson Co., Martin P. Robinson; orchestrations, Danny Troob; music direction, dance music and additional vocal arrangements, Henry Aronson; original vocal arrangements, Robert Billig; production stage manager, Karen Armstrong; production manager, Christopher Jahn. Artistic director, David Arisco. Opened, reviewed May 16, 2003. Running time: 2 HOURS.

Cast: Audrey - Alice Ripley Seymour - Hunter Foster Mushnik - Lee Wilkof Orin - Reg Rogers Audrey II (voice) - Billy Porter Chiffon - Moeisha McGill Crystal - Dioni Michelle Collins Ronnette - Haneefah Wood

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