Wilted Plant

The UA, in fun fashion, brings the mediocre prose of 'Little Shop of Horrors' to life

Black music is the sound of subversion, if you believe two musicals that opened in Tucson at about the same time last week. Both are comedies filled with dark humor, and both have the integrity to kill off major characters. The stronger work of the two, Urinetown, has packed up its trunks and moved on to the next tour stop, but Little Shop of Horrors is still with us--a fun, homegrown production at the University of Arizona.

This is a review of Little Shop, but it's hard to discuss that show right now without comparing it to Urinetown, with which it had the misfortune of competing last week. It's not a problem of UA students versus a professional touring company; the Arizona Repertory Theatre production of Little Shop was typically polished, if a bit underenergized, on opening night. No, the trouble is with the material itself; held up to the example of the nasty and hilarious Urinetown, Little Shop is a mere bagatelle--fun, trivial, derivative, nothing to remain excited about once the cast members take their final bows.

Urinetown is about an uprising of poor people forced to pay too much for the privilege of peeing in a drought-stricken city run by a greedy businessman who has full control over the area's toilets, cops and politicians. The first act, in which the bad businessman is in charge, has a Kurt Weill feel without even coming close to cribbing from Threepenny Opera. (A stronger inspiration is surely Marc Blitzstein's 1936 social-protest musical, The Cradle Will Rock, although Urinetown has shed and even mocks the earnestness that weighs down Blitzstein's satire.) But once the city's poor folks rebel, they start singing like a gospel choir. Message: Black music will set you free.

Little Shop of Horrors, an early-'80s stage show based on the nonmusical 1960 Roger Corman camp horror film classic, is about a nerdy Skid Row flower-shop employee who starts moving up in the world when he cultivates a strange, man-eating plant from outer space. The overall musical style is early '60s white rock 'n' roll, with catchy but not very memorable songs by Disney tunesmiths Alan Menken and Howard Ashman. But when the mutant Venus flytrap starts demanding to be fed as it plots to propagate itself across America and devour white suburbia, the plant breaks away from societal norms by adopting an R&B style. It does everything but ask, "Hey, where the white women at?" Message: Black music will destroy our fine WASP nation.

True, each member of the three-voice chorus--Chiffon, Crystal, Ronnette--is named after an early '60s girl group that included African Americans. But here, they merely sing cute doo-wop that blends right in with the whitewash rock that pervades the rest of the show. (And in this production, two of them are played by white actresses.)

The problem with this subtle undercurrent of racism is not that it's racist, but that it's subtle. Little Shop of Horrors would be a much stronger show if it were a full send-up of 1960 race relations; after all, the flower-shop owner is just short of being a stereotypical, kvetching, stingy Jew. If you're going to be reckless enough to dabble in race-as-camp, you ought to go all the way. Instead, what we get is Grease arranged and delivered by mildly demented FTD Florists.

At least the Arizona Repertory Theatre cares enough to send the very best. Joey Snider is nicely gangly and inhibited as nerdy Seymour, whose lack of a green thumb is no liability when tending a plant that prefers red meat. Trisha Hart Ditsworth strikes a fine balance as his beleaguered love interest, Audrey; she may have self-esteem problems, but she's not an idiot. Andrew David Goldwasser finds comparable comic poise as shopowner Mushnik, uncovering sympathetic elements in a somewhat antagonistic character.

Jonathan Brian Furedy has great fun as a sadistic, leather-clad, gas-huffing dentist, and neatly delineates most of the other minor characters he must bring to life. (He does an especially good Paul Lynde impersonation.) Whiteboy Ben Crawford does an excellent job producing that distinctively sonorous African-American vocal quality as the voice of the plant, Audrey II, and Luke Bishop, the plant-puppet manipulator, manages to give Audrey II a real physical personality. The chorus girls--Marisa Kennedy, Lisa Sproul and Shoshana Freisinger--make the moves and sing the tunes with style, although they and Ditsworth often turn strident when contending with Menken's high-tessitura vocal lines. Ditsworth's top notes aren't helped by her nasal, squeaky Brooklyn delivery, something that's been imposed on seemingly every actress in a big musical presented here over the past dozen months. Enough, already.

Arizona Rep picked up the Audrey II puppets from an out-of-state theater, so it can't be credited with the ingenuity of their design. The revolving set by Tom Benson and Ben Naasz is equally intriguing, though, without overshadowing the fluid stage direction of Richard T. Hanson. Conductor Elizabeth Spencer presides over a small, crisp backstage band.

On opening night, the cast couldn't quite whomp up that last bit of exuberance this show really needs, and the voice amplification alternately cut out and sent feedback squealing through the theater. Otherwise, this is about as good a Little Shop of Horrors as you're going to see, only slightly inferior to Arizona Theatre Company's production several seasons ago. The UA forces package it up as a bright, fun bouquet; it's not their fault if the show's writers trimmed from the stems all the pricking thorns.