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Stage

Rooted in eccentricity

With a murdering plant, a sadistic dentist, sing-along songs and a sweet love story, 'Little Shop of Horrors' has all the zaniness you would expect from a musical comedy.

By JOHN FLEMING
Published April 12, 2007


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photo
[Times photo: Bob Croslin]
Seymour, seated, is played by Joey Panek; the sadistic biker-dentist Orin is played by Christopher Swan.

'Little Shop of Horrors'
The American Stage in the Park production opens Friday and runs through April 29 at Demens Landing, First Avenue N and Bayshore Boulevard SE, St. Petersburg. Performances are at 8 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. $11-$26. Children 12 and younger are free. There is a "pay what you can" preview at 8 tonight. (727) 823-7529; www.americanstage.org.

For 20 years, Shakespeare ruled Demens Landing on the St. Petersburg waterfront in the spring. But times change, and now American Stage's annual production in the park could be about anything -- even a giant flesh-eating, soul-singing plant named Audrey II.

Little Shop of Horrors, a musical inspired by a cult B movie, is the company's second non-Shakespearean show under the stars. Written by Alan Menken music and Howard Ashman (book and lyrics), it features an inventive rock score and campy characters like the aforementioned Venus flytrap, a dentist right out of your worst nightmare and a simple love story.

"It's an unusual show," director Steven Flaa said. "It's very intimate, with only nine people in the cast, including the two who play the plant. It has a pop '60s sensibility, but it also goes off onto some different tracks within that sensibility. It becomes almost like an opera in Suddenly Seymour, and then there are silly, fun numbers like Mushnik & Son, which has this Yiddish, Fiddler on the Roof style."

Flaa, who directed The Big Bang for American Stage last season, is an unabashed fan of the show. He saw the original off-Broadway production years ago and still remembers how it affected him.

"It really moved me," he said. "Especially the characters of Seymour, this little schlub, and Audrey, and how they make this connection. You actually care about these people. If you don't, then it's just a bunch of shtick. What holds the show together is that relationship."

Not much to ask

For actors, the script of Little Shop of Horrors leaves little to the imagination. Here's how it describes the musical's leading lady, Audrey, a florist's clerk who is dating Mr. Wrong:

"If you took Judy Holliday, Carol Channing, Marilyn Monroe and Goldie Hawn, removed their education and feelings of self-worth, dressed them in spiked heels and low-cut black dress, and then shook them up in a test tube to extract what's sweetest and most vulnerable -- that'd be Audrey."

The character was memorably portrayed by Ellen Greene, who was Audrey in the 1982 off-Broadway show and then reprised the role in the 1986 movie.

"I thought she was just flawless," said Kelly Atkins, who plays Audrey in the American Stage in the Park production. "The challenge for me or any actress who plays Audrey is to try to find their own Audrey and not to be doing Ellen Greene. But she did it so well, and the character is so specific from the writers, that it becomes a challenge to find your own Marilyn Monroe-Carol Channing test-tube baby."

Seymour, who wins Audrey by making a Faustian bargain with the voracious plant, is played by Joey Panek. He has his own specific stage directions to follow.

"They ask that you not make Seymour into a Jerry Lewis pratfalling nerd," Panek said. "They want you to play him as a sweet, well-meaning little man in glasses."

But the parts of Audrey and Seymour are straightforward in comparison to the plant, a fast-growing Venus flytrap hybrid named Audrey II, whose voice is played by Sharon Scott and body by Charles McKenzie.

"Charles has to make certain adjustments," Flaa said. "Sharon has a very distinctive vocal thing that she likes to do. He's got to really listen to her."

Music you remember

Little Shop of Horrors was the first hit by Menken and Ashman, who went on to do music and lyrics for the Disney animated features The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin.

The musical is a staple of high school and community theater productions, and American Stage clearly is hoping that its popular appeal will reverse a trend of declining attendance on the landing. It has the shortest run of any park show in memory, with 15 performances.

Atkins has been in one other production of Little Shop of Horrors, playing a member of the girl group that functions like a Greek chorus.

"There's something about this show that really gets to people," she said. "This kooky, singing plant is so unforgettable and outrageous. And Suddenly Seymour is almost like a pop classic now. It's in every karaoke bar."

John Fleming can be reached at (727) 893-8716 or fleming@sptimes.com.

[Last modified April 11, 2007, 18:31:08]


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