Monday, March 7, 2022

ASF: "Little Shop of Horrors"

Warning: "Don't feed the plants!" -- After a "sudden eclipse of the sun", the entire human race "suddenly encountered a deadly threat to its very existence". Quite an opening gambit in the Alabama Shakespeare Festival's dynamic production of the Howard Ashman and Alan Menken musical: Little Shop of Horrors.

Based on the 1986 film that took the Off-Off Broadway show into mainstream American consciousness, it recounts the story of nebbishy Seymour [Kelly Autry], who works at Mr. Mushnik's [Allen Fitzpatrick] "Skid Row" flower shop, alongside Audrey [Lauren Nicole Chapman]. Right after the "eclipse", Seymour discovers a mysterious plant he names Audrey II, being too shy to declare his attraction to Audrey, whose sadistic boyfriend Orin [Andrew Samonsky who plays several other roles as well] is a motorcycle-riding dentist who loves to inflict pain, both physical and emotional on everyone he encounters.

"Street Urchins" Chiffon [Elexis Morton], Crystal [Crystal Sha'nae], and Ronnette [Danea Osseni], reminiscent of "The Supremes" and other popular girl groups, serve as a kind of Greek Chorus, driving and participating in the action in song and witty dialogue, abetted by Lindsay Renea Benton's imaginative choreography. They are an exceptional trio.

And then, there's the plant: Audrey II -- designed by Monkey Boys Productions, voiced with growing sinister intent by Michael A. Shepperd who takes full advantage of the dark comedy in the script and lyrics, and masterfully manipulated by puppeteer J. Scott Grinstead in Audrey II's assorted iterations.

After all, Audrey II simply wants world domination, and utilizes cunning tricks on an unsuspecting Seymour, promising him fame, wealth, and the real Audrey's love in return for his cooperation. The catch is that Audrey II needs human blood in order to survive and grow and grow and grow; its voracious appetite eventually devours numerous characters despite Seymour's attempts to resist its demand to "Feed me".

And, while Little Shop of Horrors blithely and hilariously satirizes 20th Century science fiction, B-movies, and the traditions of musical comedy, one can't help but recognize a Faustian connection where a person sells his soul to the devil for temporary earthly rewards and its correlation to much of today's political spectrum.

The actors are a uniformly tight triple-threat ensemble of actors-singers-dancers, ably discovering subtle qualities in their various personae. We might gleefully hiss the villain Orin while we admire Mr. Samonsky's agility to somehow be likable at his demise in the song "NOW [It's Just the Gas]", eliciting spontaneous gasps and laughs; and he adapts so many other parts with equal clarity. "Mushnik and Son" shows Mr. Fitzpatrick's flexibility to demonstrate both the demanding and softer sides of his character. As romance builds between Seymour and Audrey, Ms. Chapman's tough exterior disintegrates in her touching rendition of "Somewhere That's Green", and their love duet "Suddenly Seymour" deserves its rapturous reception by the audience.

Confidently directed by Rick Dildine, the Octagon stage has been transformed to Mushnick's "Skid Row" flower shop and multi-level environs through Adam Koch's evocative detailed scenic design and Cory Pattak's inventive lighting design. Theresa Ham's by turns gritty and glamorous costumes enhance every moment. Lively Musical Direction by Joel Jones blends Motown, R&R, and Doo-Wop styles that are at once nostalgic and contemporary. Melanie Chen Cole's Sound Design blasts through the Octagon at every turn, complimenting the musical score and vocals, and keeping audience engagement. -- And a big shout-out to Katie An Siegel and the Stage Management team for smoothly co-ordinating the production's gargantuan technical cues.

ASF's production of Little Shop of Horrors is an example of Musical Theatre at its very best: an exceptional collaboration of a gifted company both on-stage and off.

Friday, March 4, 2022

Millbrook: "Deliver Us From Mama"

"Road trip...!" -- Mama's hitting the road again in the Jones-Hope-Wooten comedy Deliver Us From Mama, currently playing in Millbrook. -- For those who are familiar with the trio's Mama Won't Fly or Dearly Departed, prepare yourselves for raucous goings-on during the play's two acts.

Mama [Vicki Moses] and her daughter Savannah [Karla McGhee] travel cross-country from Birmingham, AL to Los Angeles, CA to surprise son Walker [Bill Rauch] and daughter-in-law Haley [Tracey Quates in voice-overs, though she never appears on stage] for the birth of a grandchild, only to find that Haley has gone to Mama's home; and now Mother and her two argumentative adult children are forced to drive back to the South in time for the delivery because an air traffic controllers strike has grounded planes.

On the way, they face a lot of obstacles: strange car mechanics, hippie wedding planners, storms, barge trips across the Mississippi River, eccentric family in New Orleans, and bossy hospital staff --- all these characters played by a coterie of actors in multiple roles apiece. -- John Chain, Marcella Willis, Logan Preston, Connor Carraway, Pat VanCor, Connie Morrow Carraway, and Pat McClelland manage quick costume changes and bizarre behaviors much to the audience's delight.

Stephanie McGuire directs with attention to the outlandish displays of the characters, and garners abundant laughs throughout the performance. -- Some tightening up on the sound and lighting cues could smooth out the sometimes lengthy scene changes, and a few members of the acting company speak so quickly that their lines are blurred and we miss the jokes.

And there is an important overall message mixed in with the silliness of Deliver Us From Mama: we all need to try to get along better, put aside our self-centered approach to life, and learn to live as family. Not bad advice.