The Little Shop That Could

A confession: Before the curtain goes up on any musical production, I check out the number of songs in each act; if the show turns out to be a turkey I can start the countdown till the final curtain. During the intermission to Little Shop of Horrors, now at Boca Raton's Caldwell Theatre Company, I spied an agitated man pointing at his program, then drew closer to overhear him loudly complain that there were only five songs in the second act. I couldn't have agreed more. The only thing wrong with this Shop is its hours: Two fleeting acts and sixteen wickedly fun musical numbers packed into less than 120 minutes doesn't seem nearly enough.

Then again, I have a history with the, ummm, source material. As a child I must have seen schlockmeister Roger Corman's 1960 campy low-budget monster movie The Little Shop of Horrors a dozen times on TV's Creature Feature. For days after each airing, my two older brothers and I would imitate the film's man-eating plant by relentlessly chanting "feed me, feed me" as my harried mother rushed to put supper on the table. Judging from the gleeful faces of the many children in Caldwell's audience for this loony musical update, I fear no school cafeteria or home dining room is safe.

Neither written nor presented as children's theater, Little Shop of Horrors nonetheless offers up a raucous treat for school-age kids as well as lighthearted adults. Small wonder, since it's from the same team that went on to create Disney's Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, and Aladdin. After a previous theatrical attempt (the short-lived 1979 musical version of Kurt Vonnegut's God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater), composer Alan Menken and the late lyricist/book writer Howard Ashman hit it big in 1982 with Little Shop. One of off-Broadway's longest-running shows (five years), it took home the Best Musical awards from both the New York Drama Critics Circle and the Outer Critics Circle before it was turned into a film (again) in 1986. With Caldwell's delightfully giddy production, we are reminded that Disney's gain was musical theater's loss.

Set to a doo-wop score, the black comedy pays homage to cheesy Cold War-era sci-fi flicks, as nerdy skid-row florist Seymour (Paul Louis) garners fame with his discovery of a new plant; he alone knows it came from outer space, but even he is unaware of its plans for world domination. Named Audrey II, after Seymour's bleached-blond co-worker (Rachel Jones), the plant talks to Seymour, showing him how to win dim bulb Audrey away from her sadistic dentist boyfriend (Stephen G. Anthony) while also arranging to get the green-thumbed orphan adopted by his boss, opportunistic flower shop owner Mr. Mushnik (Arland Russell). There's only one catch: The whole plan depends on keeping the voracious plant alive with regular feedings of human blood.

From its need of "soul food" to its Motown-inspired song "Feed Me (Git It)," Audrey II is nearly entertaining enough to kill for. "Sung" by Akin Babatunde and "manipulated" by Aaron Cimadevilla, the funky philodendron sprouts blood-red tips on teeth-shape thorny leaves as it grows ever larger (represented by a series of gruesomely sly puppets created by the Hasty Pudding Puppet Company). With a human cast as good as this one, however, it seems a shame to sacrifice any of them for plant food.

You can almost see the vacancy sign flashing behind Audrey's eyes as Jones gives an extremely smart dumb-blonde performance; even better is her dynamic, powerful singing. And on the subject of belts, Anthony plays her abusive, motorcycle-riding boyfriend in an outrageous, lip-twisting, hip-swiveling sendup of Elvis that's worth its weight in fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches. While Jones and Anthony push the satiric envelope, Louis portrays the sympathetic loser Seymour in deadly earnest, successfully focusing the plot and preventing the show from teetering into a one-joke parody.

Director Kenneth Kay's keen staging deserves credit for delivering the production's drive-in-movie feel with a clarity those tinny window speakers never could. Likewise, choreographer Lynnette Barkley could justifiably change her first name to "Ronette," given the sassy girl-group moves she creates for the musical's dream-girl Greek chorus of urchins (Vivianne Collins, Karen Stephens, and Margo Peace). Changing costumes more often than Diana Ross, the three are supreme fun in designer Penny Koleos Williams's matching pastel outfits. Yet even their colorful costumes can't spruce up scenic designer's Tim Bennett's marvelously dingy flower shop or dilapidated skid-row setting. Add to all this a rocking four-piece band led by musical director David Truskinoff, and Little Shop of Horrors left me, like Audrey II, hungry for more.

Stage Whispers
Three months ago New Times reported that the upcoming 1997-98 season at the University of Miami's Jerry Herman Ring Theatre was in jeopardy. Concerned that their work on theatrical productions was less valued as review criteria for academic performance than was publishing or research, a majority of the drama faculty voted to postpone the season indefinitely. The vote was precipitated when two of the faculty's members, Ring manager/actor Kent Lantaff and lighting designer Thomas Salzman, were denied tenure by school provost Luis Glaser. A standoff resulted when Glaser refused to recognize the vote.

Now, with many issues remaining unresolved (including the viability of other tenure-track positions), and after a summer spent replacing three departing faculty members and welcoming a new interim department chairman, the university has announced that the show will indeed go on. The Ring will open a four-show season on September 26 with George C. Wolfe's The Colored Museum (through October 4), a satiric look at black myths and stereotypes. It will be followed by the Sixties rock musical Hair (November 14 through 22), Eric Bogosian's drama Suburbia (February 20 through 28), and Cole Porter's 1934 musical Anything Goes (April 17 through 25).

Lantaff will be part of the new season, having settled his grievance with the university by signing a multiyear contract that doesn't include tenure but does contain a legal clause preventing him from discussing the details. "I came back because I felt we worked too hard to turn our backs," he explains. "I'd really like to see UM act as an important role model for the rest of the community, which, if the NEA battle is any indication, is starting to view the arts as some kind of frill."

Salzman's status remains in limbo. Although he is not scheduled to work on The Colored Museum, he continues to teach a full load of classes during discussions with the school about tenure and the terms of his continued employment. "Yes, there is a Ring season," he notes, "but even issues separate from my own situation remain. Is there going to be tenure again in the department, and how does producing in the Ring Theatre factor into the overall vision of the department and the university?"

While Salzman and Lantaff look at the big picture, their tenure bid recently received a boost from the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), which publishes standards for hiring, promotion, and tenure. After reviewing an appeal submitted by the two professors, AAUP sent UM a letter urging further consideration of the issue, stating that the school's action "makes a mockery of the tenure system and is terribly unfair to the two individuals."

Daniel Pals, associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and interim theater department chairman, says that the university is considering a response to AAUP's letter. Meanwhile, since taking over from his predecessor Robert Ankrom, who stepped down in July, Pals has made re-evaluating the department a priority. He even reduced the season from five productions to four, thereby allowing time for the necessary focus. "The department needs to undertake a review of themselves and their direction," contends Pals. "We've already had a day and a half of meetings toward this. We have a determination to fix whatever was broken, if anything, and get on with this."

While faculty and school officials deliberate, at least one student hopes the department reserves its dramatics for the stage. Cindy Benson, a 21-year-old senior majoring in stage management, reflects, "We lost a lot of good people who were not just concerned over this issue but worried about where the university is going. It's sad, and in the long run it ends up hurting the students. I think schools have swings, and we're at the bottom of a really bad swing. But the faculty members who are here are outstanding, and I guess you just have to ignore the politics and do the best you can."

Little Shop of Horrors.
Book and lyrics by Howard Ashman; music by Alan Menken; directed by Kenneth Kay; choreographed by Lynnette Barkley; with Stephen G. Anthony, Rachel Jones, Paul Louis, and Arland Russell. Through October 5. For more information call 930-6400 or see "Calendar Listings.

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