But this revival skips over some of the punchier aspects. The social and class conflicts are clearly set up in the show's first big number, "Downtown (Skid Row)," and Grappo works with these issues early on. When Audrey sings "Somewhere That's Green," a plaintive, woe-is-me tune about wishing to live in suburbia, she's surrounded by the members of the chorus, who look on with hard-eyed clarity. The blond white chick can dream about upscale suburban dreams, but the three poor black women know they're not going anywhere. Grappo's staging shows a nice understated irony here, but that's soon lost. More troubling is the fact that the corrosive power of Audrey II is decidedly misinterpreted. As this production now plays, Little Shop is merely a story about ordinary people who happen to meet a sad end because of an evil external force. But earlier incarnations of this story suggest a more troubling tale: that this external force unleashes inherent destructive forces within these ordinary characters. One example is the florist Mushnik, played by Lee Wilkof (the original Seymour). Mushnik starts off a likable schlemiel but turns into a greedy predator as his acquisition of wealth warps him. He has to be so money-hungry that he can be lured even into the jaws of death, if the trap is baited with cash. Grappo and Wilkof don't take Mushnik far enough; his hunger should be more consuming. Same with Seymour's desire for Audrey. In both, Grappo pulls back from such strong passions. Of the principal roles, only Ripley clicks as the tormented Audrey, precisely because she's allowing for her character's darker, self-inflicted impulses. Same goes for Reg Rogers's multicharacter work as the drugged-out Orin and a swarm of cameos.
But while this production's oversimplification tends to undercut its potency, this strategy may well be by design. This is, after all, the Bush era, not the Reagan one, and while the politics of both may be similar, the national tone seems quite different. In an era such as ours, when reward-the-rich tax cuts pass Congress without so much as a public whimper, it may make sense for Little Shop's producers to stifle any social sensitivity in the plot. Who knows? In this day and age, they may well find audiences rooting wholeheartedly for the ravenous, blood-sucking plant.
Hunter Foster, Alice Ripley: On familiar tracks
Book and lyrics by Howard Ashman, music by Alan Menken, directed by Connie Grappo. With Dioni Michelle Collins, Hunter Foster, Moeisha McGill, Billy Porter, Alice Ripley, Reg Rogers, Lee Wilkof, and Haneefah Wood.
Presented through June 15; Call 305-444-9293.
The Actors' Playhouse at Miracle Theatre, 280 Miracle Mile, Coral Gables, FL