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March 9, 2004

Little Shop: Audience eats up UT's innovative take

Part of theater's appeal is the impossibility of exactly reproducing a past performance. The audience knows on some level that it is witnessing something unique. As Artaud wrote in No More Masterpieces, "the theater is the only place in the world where a gesture, once made, can never be made the same way twice." Watching UT's production of Little Shop of Horrors, I felt that I was watching a distinctive performance but not just because of the it-will-never-happen-again-just-in-this-way quality of such performances. This version of Little Shop of Horrors made some deliberate and surprising choices for various aspects of the play—and succeeded in pulling them off. The end result was a delightful hour-and-a-half that served as a welcome escape from the chill and stress of a rapidly dwindling winter quarter.

To those who have never seen the show: as musicals go, this one is dark. It's the story of a meek geek named Seymour (second-year Reid Aronson) who works in an unsuccessful flower shop under owner Mushnik (second-year Rebecca Phillips) and pines after Audrey (first-year Angie Gragasin), a pretty co-worker with an abusive, dentist boyfriend (first-year Ian Romain) and "a past." Seymour is catapulted to fame and fortune because of a strange plant named Audrey II (fifth-year Virginia Killian). Audrey II—named after Seymour's true love—requires, and then demands, human blood to flourish. Forced to murder to feed the plant, Seymour eventually loses both his life and Audrey's. In addition, Audrey II clones take over the world. So if you've only seen the 1986 movie version starring Rick Moranis, Ellen Greene, and Steve Martin—which I'm told has a happy conclusion—you might be surprised by this far more unsettling ending.

Although the Third Floor Theater is small and the set was minimalist, the excellent use of space and lighting compensated for these slight shortcomings. The actors, standing at opposite ends of the stage, created the illusion of a larger space. The energetic house band—which played before the show, during the show, and during intermission—sat on the left side of the stage, lit by pink lights and conducted by second-year Ben Fink. Their presence on stage caused no disruption of the play—they seemed removed from the action occurring beside them.

In the song "Skid Row (Downtown)," people climbed in through a window from the parapet and a spotlight illuminated Seymour as he began singing to an exit sign along the left wall. Actors often entered from the back of the theater, and, in one case, Seymour stood before a closed curtain as fourth-year Junhow Wei came through the curtain three times as three different characters. The costume and character changes Wei underwent were amusing and admirably quick. Aside from one apparent slip-up with the lights—Seymour's face remained in the dark for a few seconds after he started singing—I noticed no errors, and the timing was impeccable.

What made the performance so dynamic and enjoyable was the talented group of actors who all sang well and moved with confidence and poise. Aronson and Gragasin had great chemistry onstage. Aronson played the part of Seymour convincingly and soulfully, though he struck me as too toothsome for the role. (I came into the show expecting a male lead embodying the quintessential "geek" look: tall, skinny, gawky, homely, and wearing glasses.) Gragasin exuded sweetness and vulnerability with her voice, demeanor, and facial expressions—and her accent was "poifect." During her death scene, I teared up because I had gotten so attached to her character.

Phillips shone as Mushnik, filling the stage with her powerful voice and presence, particularly in the number "Mushnik and Son." Though I was surprised that a female was playing Mushnik—a traditionally male role—I had no problem adjusting to the gender switch, although it slightly changed the way I saw the Mushnik-Seymour relationship. Romain pulled out all the stops in his role as the dentist, playing up his nitrous oxide addiction by staggering about on stage and otherwise acting "under the influence." His funny, exuberant performance more than made up for a few wrong notes. The three dancing girls—aside from looking sexy in their sparkling magenta tops and shiny green skirts—sang with gusto and danced cutely.

I came to the show expecting a gigantic puppet plant with an enormous, gaping mouth. One of Little Shop's reinterpretations placed a flesh-and-blood actress in this role. Virginia Killian did a masterful job, and I liked the new, original twist on the role, which added a sexual dimension I had never seen before. Lines like "Cut the crap and bring me the meat" made me giggle, which would not have happened with a puppet. When she swallowed her victims, she shook and thrusted her body forth in sexual, even orgasmic, motions. In one scene, she even licked Seymour's ear. The posters I had seen around campus (a girl with a rag in her mouth that says, "Feed me all night long") suddenly made sense. Throughout the play the innuendo was reflected through the plant lurking in the background batting her long green eyelashes or pursing her lips, which were covered with green lipstick.

To emphasize Killian's plantlike character, her costume changed several times. At first, she was hidden in a pod, with only glimpses of her fingers visible. Next her legs emerged, covered in green cloth, followed by the rest of her in a green body suit with magenta swirls and tiny flowers adorning her nipples (creepily reminiscent of Janet Jackson at the Super Bowl). Her costume then expanded—the tiny flowers becoming rather grotesque-looking roses—until parts of the costume drooped off her.

This production of Little Shop of Horrors moved at a fast clip and maintained a high energy level, making it seem much shorter than it actually was. Aside from the dated script, everything was in its right place technically speaking, and the actors were capable and comfortable on stage. All in all, this production did justice to the legacy of Little Shop, providing quality entertainment throughout the performance.