Leaves of Crass
Skid Row never looked so clean. Every ugly, filthy, creepy, scary detail of the original film it was based on has been scrubbed away in the oversized touring production of Little Shop of Horrors now going through its motions at the Music Hall at Fair Park. This version of the Howard Ashman-Alan Menken musical is the road production offshoot of a recent Broadway revival of the 1982 off-Broadway WPA Theatre show that was based on a zilch-budget Roger Corman fright flick from 1960. With each new incarnation, the musical and its demanding man-eating plant have gotten bigger, shinier, more G-rated and less entertaining. This Little Shop of Horrors now bears about as much resemblance to the original movie, or even to the gritty little musical it was 22 years ago, as Broadway's cheerful, overteased Hairspray does to the subversive little John Waters film whence it sprang.
More theme park ride than theater piece, Little Shop has gone horror-free and family-friendly. Every song, every corny joke in this production arrives predigested and lifeless, like the dialogue repeated in monotone by those bored college-kid guides on the old LaSalle boats at Six Flags. "Watch out (beat, beat.) There could be IN-juns in those trees. "
Shows like this are the exports of the new Broadway, where tourist-luring glitz triumphs over originality or art. Little Shop isn't a Disney show, but even under the direction of Broadway hit-maker Jerry Zaks, it sure looks, sounds and feels like one. Call it Nerdy and the Beast.
The story is a way-out little sci-fi gem, stripped now of its blood and gore and missing most of the pitiful love story that gave even the crummy Corman film an emotional tug. Seymour Krelbourn (Anthony Rapp), a nebbish in a sweater vest, works in a Skid Row florist shop where he discovers a tiny, exotic plant that thrives on human blood. Bimbotic co-worker Audrey (Tari Kelly) sees moneymaking potential. Their boss, Mr. Mushnik (Lenny Wolpe), watches love bloom between his two loser employees.
Everything's coming up roses for Seymour and Audrey until the plant, nicknamed Audrey II, starts growing like a 'roided rhododendron, demanding more frequent feedings. In a Faustian bargain, Seymour agrees to provide freshly killed manwiches if Audrey II will bring riches and fame. First entrée: Orin Scrivello (James Moye), Audrey's sadistic dentist-boyfriend (they really do call him "leader of the plaque," vroom, vroom). What Seymour doesn't realize until too late is that his leafy friend is an extraterrestrial that gobbles people like so many soylent green snacks.
Like the movie, the off-Broadway Little Shop was grisly fun. The little show featured a small cast, a style that paid witty homage to the pulp-happy '50s and a strangely expressive puppet-plant designed by the Jim Henson people and manned by master puppeteer Martin P. Robinson. In a space as cavernous as the Music Hall, however, that original plant would look like a wrist corsage. Details in a touring production that asks 75 bucks a ticket have to be XXL to play to the balconies, so the new Audrey II is as massive as a parade float, rising two stories high on a jerky mechanical contraption. It must be a fearsome thing to work with. Actors aren't chomped suddenly by this Audrey II. They step as gingerly into it as overweight grown-ups getting onto Mr. Toad's Wild Ride. Be careful of your hands and feet, folks, and secure the safety bar.
Next to the plastic behemoth, Rapp and Kelly look Lilliputian. They have pleasant enough voices, but their performances are small and unmemorable. They don't get many laughs, and in their big duet, "Suddenly Seymour," they generate less chemistry than geraniums sharing a window sill.
Lenny Wolpe's Mr. Mushnik is much more fun. Before he's munched into mulch by Audrey II, Wolpe shoplifts a couple of scenes and songs, daring madly to zingen and tantsn like Fiddler's Tevye (a role he's played elsewhere).
As the "Greek chorus" of doo-wop urchins, Yasmeen Sulieman, Amina S. Robinson and LaTonya Holmes speed too fast through the lyrics in Robert Billig's new vocal arrangements. The Phil Spector-style singers sound too contemporary for music grounded in the close harmonies and catchy rhythms of the chart hits of the Howdy Doody era. And Kathleen Marshall's choreography? What dancing? When?
If only this production had sprouted a surprise or 10. More laughs. Some Grand Guignol bloodletting during the feedings, perhaps. I've seen wilder man-eaters in fern bars.
What could be more frightening than waking up in hell? Maybe waking up to find that your roommates for eternity are Madonna, Fran Leibowitz and a big sweaty fat guy.
That's the premise of The Exit, a two-act existentialist drama written and directed by Kevin Ash for the new Labyrinth Theatre at Arapaho United Methodist Church in Richardson. The play is intended as a "response" to No Exit, Jean-Paul Sartre's terrifying 1944 play best remembered for the line "Hell is other people."
The line is spoken in The Exit, too, by Garcin (Ray Gestaut), the sweaty bear who, like the other characters, Inez the lesbian (Jennifer Engler) and Estelle the pop star (Jamie Korthase), shares his name with one in Sartre's play. Each steps out of an elevator into the afterlife, escorted by a bellboy (Jaron Warren) into a garishly decorated hotel room. There are no windows, no mirrors. And no way out.
At first the characters lie about how they lived and died. But eventually the truth emerges. Garcin was a boozing, philandering evangelist. Inez, a writer, hates men. Being trapped with one in hell is punishment for murdering her lover's husband. Estelle, married to a man three times her age, died after drowning the baby she had by her teenage dancer-boyfriend.
It's a heavy, talky two and a half hours, with much of the dialogue paralleling Sartre's original. The difference here is the ending. As befits a play presented in a church, The Exit offers an escape from damnation. But it's a subtle, not preachy, message of redemption (would Methodists have it any other way?).
The acting is pretty decent, too. Gestaut gives a gently drawn performance as the disgraced minister. As the pop singer, Korthase has a pinched beauty and a strong presence, but the unflattering khaki pedal-pushers costume designer Kristina Webster has her in don't fit the image of an international star (one imagines Estelle trying them on and saying, "I wouldn't be caught dead in these"). As Inez, Engler is just all over the place, with a showy gesture for every word she utters.
For a new company doing a difficult play, Labyrinth makes a promising debut. But they might want to rethink the awkward 7 p.m. curtain time and the $25 ticket price. That's high for a semi-pro company. And for that kind of money, the audience chairs shouldn't be so brutally hard.
The good news for playwright Ash is that there's bound to be an afterlife for The Exit. After all, the title's already up in lights in every theater in the country.
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