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THEATER REVIEW: Little Shop of Horrors
by Scott C. Morgan, Windy City Times

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Book and Lyrics: Howard Ashman; Music: Alan Menken

At: American Blues Theater at Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave.

Tickets: 773-404-7336 or; $19-$49

Runs through: June 26

Comedies with a high gay camp sensibility often don't break through to become mainstream successes. But that certainly wasn't the case with the musical phenomenon Little Shop of Horrors.

The smash-hit 1982 off-Broadway musical comedy is back again in an intimate production by American Blues Theater, which will have its ardent fans debating its plusses and minuses.

Before they helped to usher in a new golden age of Disney animated films starting in 1989 with The Little Mermaid, the late gay playwright and lyricist Howard Ashman and composer Alan Menken rose to fame with their unlikely adaptation of Roger Corman's 1960 horror flick about a manipulative man-eating plant. What resulted was a tuneful score filled with heartfelt ballads and catchy doo-wop and blues-styled songs played against the ages-old dramatic conflict of a Faustian pact gone horribly wrong.

American Blues' take on Little Shop of Horrors is musically impeccable, especially with music director and keyboardist Austin Cook helping to pump out a rumbling bass sound. The cast has many great voices, especially with the trio of Camille Robinson, Jasondra Johnson and Eunice Woods as the ever-present Greek chorus of street urchins. Lorenzo Rush Jr. is also great voicing the bloodthirsty plant Audrey II.

It also helps immensely to have the husband-and-wife team of actor/composer Michael Mahler and actress Dara Cameron playing the leading lover roles of floral shop workers Seymour and Audrey. There's a real chemistry between the two, and they anchor the production with an honest connection.

But others may find that director Jonathan Berry's approach to the material to be too grounded and not big enough with the ironic camp comedy ( especially with costume designer Izumi Inaba's relatively restrained approach to Audrey's tacky outfits ). Even Berry's direction of the amusing Ian Paul Custer as the sadistic dentist Orin and Mark David Kaplan as the parsimonious floral-shop owner Mr. Mushnik can feel too cautious at times, even though they're some of the more outrageous characters.

Berry also crowds the production with unnecessary extra actors Yando Lopez and Darian Tene. Though both vocally impressive, Lopez and Tene's extra acting appearances take away from the theatrical delight at seeing a single quick-change actor taking on all their small roles.

Set designer Grant Sabin cleverly, if barely, squeezes the show into its compressed space. But the tight fit isn't always conducive for character focusing under Heather Gilbert's highly color saturated lighting design.

Now some will welcome seeing Little Shop of Horrors so up-close on an intimate scale. But others will wish that director Berry's production had more room to breathe and burst forth with a bigger quotient of camp.

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