Despite its scattered virtues, the weakness of the current Lake City Playhouse production of Little Shop of Horrors is that too often, the music overwhelms the words, in combination with the fact that virtually all the cast members' voices are untrained.
Sometimes it's just a matter of volume. The theater deserves credit for bringing in a four-piece live band to perform backstage. But because the guitar and piano are amplified, too often the music drowns out the words. That's particularly true at a couple of junctures when the Doo-Wop Girls are gyrating and screeching in the foreground while the rock band plays in the background. During those sequences, the actors are caught in between, and our ability to hear is nowhere.
It was hard to tell on opening night if the portable mikes that were provided to the two leads, Seymour and Audrey, were fully functioning. As a result, enjoyment suffers. We're straining to hear the clever Howard Ashman lyrics; we want to hear the rhyme-words and the puns. Because of technical limitations, sadly, we can't.
For a playhouse that obviously has a limited budget, Lake City achieves set design with consistently satisfying detail and quality. Still, it's unfortunate that the stage's wings are so narrow that flats protrude into view even when they're not in use. As a result, there's a ludicrously narrow pathway for actors to follow in moving from exterior to interior scenes. Audiences giggle when actors have to queue up and pivot their hips just to walk into a florist shop -- even if it is on Skid Row.
Sandy Gookin's direction is often clever: homeless people pop out of the ground and deliver a sly pre-show; movers choreograph their movements as they rearrange the decor in the florist's shop; nightmare sequences blend spookiness and fun.
As for the actors, even in a musical in which virtually none of the cast members can sing, there was at least one clear highlight: the acting of Abigail Jean as Audrey. While her voice is not nearly as good as that of Ellen Greene in the 1986 movie, her acting is better. Dressed throughout the evening with all the fashion sense of a hooker, Jean really tried to belt out a couple of the tunes but just doesn't have the pipes. Playing a battered woman, she shows up in some scenes with a black eye and a broken arm (in a leopard-print sling). She has the meekness, the self-effacing bashfulness, the timidity, the frightened sideways glances of a victim, and she achieved real pathos in numbers like "Someplace to Be Real" (a fantasy about the joys of the kind of contented suburban existence denied to her).
Jordan Gookin, son of director Sandy and artistic director Dan, is a talented comic actor who's called upon to play the role of a nerd -- something he does very well. In addition, particularly when he's in standard geek attire, he bears a slight resemblance to Rick Moranis, who played Seymour in the movie. Gookin does "nerd" well.
Compliments are in order, too, for Charles Gift, who takes on the Steve Martin sadistic-dentist role and plays it with elan, along with all the ghostly alter egos of Orin Scrivello, DDS.
At the end of the show, Audrey the man-eating plant threatens to spread out across the globe, murdering innocent people in search of world domination. It's a ludicrous threat, but our laughter is still a touch unsettled. In times of war, so I'm told, Americans like their monster movies (or musicals): when we're vaguely anxious all the time, it's useful to confront our nameless fears vicariously.
Ideally, Little Shop could serve that function. Unfortunately, in the Lake City production, the seams show. When we're afraid that the next set change or musical note might be missed, the fun evaporates. We should be able to focus on those scary things that go bump in the night, not on actors who bump into each other onstage due to cramped conditions.
Still, I can't help thinking but that, with a little more room to move around in, some better sound coordination and just a couple more cast members who can actually sing, Sandy Gookin's direction and willingness to follow Ashman's original intent suggest that she might have actually pulled off some high-quality camp in Little Shop.
The Two Gentlemen of Verona
The concept, choreography and clowns give energy to Kevin Bradshaw's production of Shakespeare's The Two Gentlemen of Verona at Gonzaga's Russell Theatre (running through this weekend). Unfortunately, the lead actors don't.
Two Gents is one of Shakespeare's early-career comedies, so the plot leans towards the formulaic: best buddies fall for the same girl, then complications with a former girlfriend of one of the Verona boys makes it a love-quadrangle. Scenes tend to be of the two-person backchat variety, with a lot of emphasis on witty word-mangling that's supposed to come off as verbal pyrotechnics but which now, four centuries later, seems like piles of bad puns. With seasoned actors, some of the verbal slicing and dicing can still be quite amusing. But the Gonzaga student actors, for the most part, lack the skills for extended wordplay.
Moving this particular comedy to the setting of the 1940s makes sense on a number of levels: war intensifies male camaraderie (a regular guy is torn between his best-chum-for-life and that bombshell of a dame he just met at a dance). Lovers were often sundered by troop movements, with no guarantee of reunion or even survival. There are all those gorgeous ballads of Der Bingle, the former Bulldog, and the racy rhythms of Glenn Miller tunes to evoke sentimental moods.
Glenn Braunstein's choreography has couples slickly slinging each other around the dance floor and generally raising the fun thermometer in this production -- at least, that is, after we had to endure nerve-wracking, protracted blackouts because somebody in the light booth didn't pick up a cue.
As commendable as the production's updated concept and crackling choreography may be, however, the single best thing about this show is Rick Steadman's performance as Thurio. As the vain, mincing, effeminate rival of Valentine (Nick Gerrone) for the hand of the beauteous Sylvia (Mikayla Patella), Steadman impersonates a sniveling toady and steals scenes shamelessly. Grinning like a sycophantic idiot, leering with self-satisfaction, Steadman conveys comedy with his face alone.
As Speed, the servant of one of the two gentlemen, Dan Fagnant provides manic energy to scenes that too often are leaden. The high point of his performance comes when he impersonates his master Valentine's multiple and excessive poses as a lovesick young cavalier. By the time Speed is weeping, prostrate, clutching Valentine's leg, spoofing how ludicrous young puppies in love are, the audience and even Valentine himself have joined in laughing at such excesses. Which is the whole point. In contrast to much of the cast, Fagnant understands his objectives, knows how to make his lines funny, and contributes to the play's gently satiric effects.
Two other clowns in this show deserve mention. Beth Carey interprets a lady-in-waiting, Lucetta, as Rosie O'Donnell at her crabbiest. In a tiny part as a servant named Panthino, Sam Weston does inventive things with bottles and noisemakers, fleshing a personality out of a flunky.
The test of any production of Two Gents, however, comes in the final scene, when one of the gentlemen, Valentine, offers his girlfriend, Sylvia -- as if she's a side of beef -- to his good pal Proteus, who has just turned out to be a traitor in matters of love. Meanwhile, the girl who was left in the lurch, Julia (Colleen Scott), who for some reason still sees something in that changeable cad Proteus (Chris Harris) looks on in agony, choosing the moment to faint and thus reveal her gender (did I mention the boy-girl disguise?).
It's a scene that drives feminists nuts, and one that leaves all of us, whatever our sexual-political leanings, shaking our heads at what the overly magnanimous Valentine thinks he's up to. Isn't this carrying the buddy thing too far? Sure, there's a war on, but this guy seems to love his friend more than he does his fiancee. Unfortunately, the four lead Gonzaga actors did nothing to underscore the tension and humor of this scene.
Nevertheless, in those swing-dance sequences, there's a real sense of exuberance and of release from real-world worries. Those dancing kids look like they're having fun. Too bad the rest of the production doesn't rise to that same level of energy and joy.