- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 20, 2005

What’s green and sings? It’s Audrey II, the carnivorous houseplant and people-gobbling star of the kitschy doo-wop musical, “Little Shop of Horrors,” currently blooming with all of its tongue-in-cheek humor and affable chills intact at Baltimore’s Hippodrome Theatre.

“Little Shop” has had many hybrids. First, it was a cult 1960 B-movie from Roger Corman that starred a young Jack Nicholson as the nebbishy florist Seymour.

The late Howard Ashman and Alan Menken concocted an off-Broadway musical version that debuted in 1982 — no doubt influenced by “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” The musical was made into yet another movie version in 1986, this time starring Steve Martin and Rick Moranis.

Taking advantage of new stage wizardry, “Little Shop” was revived in 2003, with Broadway audiences getting added thrills when Audrey II sprawls out into the theater and threatens to make plant food out of a few patrons. In the touring production, Audrey II stays in its pot, but that is the only noticeable concession — other than an unbalanced sound mix in the first act and not enough follow spotlights for the performers during the musical’s stop in Baltimore.

With the combination of Mr. Ashman’s deliciously entertaining lyrics and Mr. Menken’s score that pays tribute to the late ‘50s and ‘60s without sounding like cover tunes or Side B selections from the jukebox, it might be easy to dismiss “Little Shop” as camp. Yet, beneath the early rock tunes, the finger-snapping dances and the R&B; inflections, the musical is an affecting update of Faust.

Seymour (Jonathan Rayson) discovers an “interesting and unusual plant” at the wholesale flower market during a solar eclipse. He takes it back to Mushnik’s, “skid row’s finest florist,” and soon becomes slave to the evil fern after giving it blood. Why does Seymour sell his soul? To impress a girl, Audrey (Tari Kelly), a bottle-blond with a hilarious nasal diphthong and weakness for S&M.;

Audrey II starts out as a cute little plant that looks like a Venus flytrap on steroids, but it quickly grows to rain-forest proportions as Seymour feeds it — and his ever-increasing ambitions — with fresh blood.

Aside from its dire protein needs, Audrey II is a talented posy. As designed by the Jim Henson Workshop, the plant swivels, dances and opens its enormous crimson maw to reveal teeth that rival those of the shark from “Jaws.” Audrey II sings, too, in vocals by Michael James Leslie that recall the sexy velvet growl of Barry White.

The nonflora aspects of “Little Shop” shine, as well, with Mr. Rayson making an excellent Seymour, klutzy and insecure without overdoing the nerdiness. He is in fine voice with “Suddenly Seymour,” his emotional duet with Miss Kelly, who combines a powerhouse voice and comic vulnerability as Audrey.

As Mr. Mushnik, Ray DeMattis packs an entire roster of Jewish wedding dances into his showstopping number, “Mushnik and Son,” wherein he undulates manically to the klezmer strains of the music. Mr. DeMattis is such a mischievous pleasure in the role you are sorry when Audrey II orders him for lunch.

Yasmeen Sulieman, Amina S. Robinson and LaTonya Holmes are also excellent as the Motown-inspired chorus named Chiffon, Crystal and Ronnette, belting out songs with gospel-glee and snapping their hips so feverishly you fear their belly buttons are going to fly off. You wish you could say the same about James Moye as the sadistic Dentist who uses and bruises Audrey. While he is adept at a variety of quick character sketches, Mr. Moye is a shade off in his role, rather bland when he should be creepily charismatic.

Quibbles aside, “Little Shop” is a catchy musical comedy that has grown in stature through the years and also has spawned other “tabloid” tune fests. Where would “Hairspray,” “Bat Boy,” “Urinetown” and “Psycho Beach Party” be without “Little Shop of Horrors”?

***

WHAT: “Little Shop of Horrors,” book and lyrics by Howard Ashman, music by Alan Menken

WHERE: Hippodrome Theatre, 12 N. Eutaw St., Baltimore

WHEN: 8 p.m., Tuesdays through Sundays; 2 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays. Through May 1.

TICKETS: $24 to $69

PHONE: 800/551-7328

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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