In Spanish Harlem, there's a Rose. In the Skid Row setting of Little Shop of Horrors, written by Howard Ashman, with music by Alan Menken, and directed by Andrew Vonderschmitt with great success for the Long Beach Playhouse Mainstage Theatre, there's an Audrey II (voice of Tony Carnighi), a botanically mutant houseplant with strict dietary requirements.
Despite the dark humor, it's a breezy, light-hearted production. Sure, the three leads and one dastardly ex meet untimely ends; sure, Audrey II has designs on world domination; but there's a tone of humility ("The Meek Shall Inherit") that, with the earnest, love-shall-overcome songs, get you to believe that any travail in life can be dismissed with a song. There's an aw-shucks orphan story - Flower shop owner Mushnik (Dale Jones) adopts employee Seymour (Stephen Lydic); there's romance - Seymour loves fellow employee Audrey (Theresa Finamore); and there's a trio of enterprising and delightful doo-wop urchins Ronnette (Jazzy Jones), Crystal (Jazz Madison), and Chiffon (Kier Williams).
The performances, including the singing and dancing on that thrust stage, are solid. A lot of the production's success is based on the purposeful disconnect between the West Side Story setting, honest if a little scruffy, and the science fiction nature of Audrey II. It's over the top, which, in this case, is a good thing.
Lydic's Seymour is endearingly geeky. I wouldn't normally associate a disheveled preppy look (love the sweater vest!) with Skid Row orphans; but the glasses were a nice touch, making him all vulnerable-like. You'd think, based on Lydic's appearance, that Audrey II was the result of his diabolical mind, under the influence of some brain cell killing energy-drink, plotting revenge on his cruel world. It's much more mundane than that -- a skeevy relative of a Venus Fly Trap, a solar eclipse, and, whammo, potted zombie.
Finamore's Audrey, with her low self-esteem and bad taste in men, is exquisite. She comes across as a Donna Reed hausfrau, at least that's her perfectly understandable (at that point in time) dream: some stability, some Father Knows Best sort of guy. And then, with bruises and slings of a broken arm, she goes and dates the sadistic dentist Orin (Greg Nicholas), who seems more the type of dude that Amy Winehouse would date. Creating a character the polar opposite of M.A.S.H.'s Painless Pole, Nicholas nicely renders him as a cross between the Fonz and the dentist in "Marathon Man." You feel for her, the same way you feel for Lydic's Seymour; and if you didn't know how the story turned out, you'd wish, hope, and pray that the two ended up together in the end. They do, sort of, mulch as I care to admit it.
Jones' Mushnik nails the rags to riches to compost proprietor of a flower shop. His stentorian voice alone would ensure this production could work as a radio show; it defines his character: an Abe Vigoda high-spirited, not a little desperate character who wears his grief on his sleeve.
Finally, mention must be made of the sassy, adorable, and melodic street urchins, Jones, Madison, and Williams. Combining the insight of a Greek chorus, the scene setting chicanery of juvenile scam artists, and the audio and visuals of one of the girl groups that ruled the radio waves when the piece was written, their voices and movements were in delightful contrast to the bloodbath occurring inside the flower shop. As far as I could tell, no one grimaced or ooh-ed each time Audrey II was fed her ration of beings, human beings. We just kept smiling dementedly along.
Sure, it's a light-hearted and dark production. But the light-hearted bits - the songs, the nascent love story, the sudden success of the flower shop, and Seymour's equally sudden fame - made Audrey II's feedings more Saturday morning cartooney and less palpably horrific, turning a science fiction cum horror story cum romantic comedy into sensible dietary advice - eat your greens before they eat you.
Performances are 8pm, Friday & Saturday, 2pm, Sunday. The show runs until June 22. Tickets are $14-$24. The Playhouse is located at 5021 E. Anaheim Street, Long Beach 90804. For more information call (562) 494-1014 or visit www.lbplayhouse.org.