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By Donald V. Calamia
I love surprises. Yet after personally reviewing close to 600 shows over the past nine seasons - and attending at least 100 more - I can honestly say that it's becoming increasingly rare to be truly surprised by anything I see on stage these days. So imagine my delight at what blossomed before the opening night crowd of Little Shop of Horrors at Performance Network Theatre. Yet thanks to the superb re-imaginings of director Carla Milarch and designer Monika Essen, I can't fully explain why without ruining the fun for everyone else!
However, despite the quandary I find myself in, I can at least say this without giving away too much: Out of all the productions of Little Shop I've seen throughout the years, this has become my all-time favorite!
Based on Roger Corman's 1960 cult flick, the musical by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman tells the story of a shy, nerdy floral shop employee who, after a sudden and complete solar eclipse, discovers a strange Venus fly trap-like plant at a wholesale flower sale. He takes it back to Mushnik's Skid Row Florist, where its unusual appearance attracts world-wide attention. But there's a problem: The plant is an alien with plans to conquer the world!
To accomplish its goal, though, the plant - which Seymour (Jason Richards) has named Audrey II in honor of his co-worker and secret love, Audrey (Courtney Myers) - must cajole, brow-beat, coax, beg and threaten its discoverer to provide it with the only sustenance that will keep it alive: human blood. So how far is Seymour willing to go to stay (and become rich) in the public eye?
With a wacky, campy, yet darkly comedic '50s sci-fi plot, Little Shop is filled with bubbly and memorable tunes that range from early '60s rock to jazz. Plus, the story is moved along by a Greek chorus of street urchins named Chiffon (Sharon Brooks), Crystal (Sharriese Hamilton) and Ronnette (Diviin Huff), who add a doo-wop and Motown flair to the production.
But what theatergoers talk about most often after attending Little Shop is Audrey II and how the character is brought to life. Usually performed by an increasingly larger series of puppets and voiced by a Barry White sound-alike, Milarch and Essen have taken a different approach to the character that will have theater and Little Shop fans talking (and taking sides) for years to come. For starters, they've changed the plant's sex by using the always-sizzling Naz Edwards as the voice of Audrey II. A superb actress, singer and recording artist, Edwards' inclusion brings an unexpected sexual element to the Seymour/Audrey II dynamic that has never existed before, the result of which adds yet another delightfully creepy layer to the plot. And as for what else is unique about Audrey II, you'll have to experience the show for yourself to find out!
The rest of the cast is also at the top of its game.
Richards - who hasn't yet met a musical he doesn't excel in - seems almost typecast in the role of Seymour. An orphan taken in and taken advantage of by the store owner, Seymour suffers from little or no self esteem, and Richards expertly mines the character for every slice of emotion he can find.
Myers, too, fully grasps the character of Audrey, a sweet woman whose esteem is so low that she willingly dates a man who verbally and physically abuses her. (Her New York accent came and went by varying degrees throughout the opening night performance, however.)
Together the two make beautiful music in the second act number Suddenly Seymour, during which their characters finally profess their love for one another.
After a slightly tentative start, fine harmonies are added by Brooks, Hamilton and Huff, while B. J. Love as Mr. Mushnik once again reminds audiences what an asset he is to every production that utilizes his services.
Special kudos, though, go to Aaron T. Moore, whose skillful creation of nine different characters - male and female, and from a wino to Audrey's intimidating boyfriend, Orin - is by itself a master class in acting.
Milarch's slick direction is fully complimented by Phil Simmons' choreography. And on opening night, the three-piece band under the supervision of R. MacKenzie Lewis was note perfect and perfectly leveled.
Finally, co-star status is earned by Essen's costumes, props and especially the ingenious set that folds up, slides in and out and allows some of the quickest scene changes of the season. And the mood-enhancing lighting design by Justin Lang is quite effective.
Performance Network Theatre, 120 E. Huron St., Ann Arbor. Thursday-Sunday through May 30. Tickets: $25-$44. For information: 734-663-0681 or www.performancenetwork.org.
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