The Clinton Area Showboat Theatre's Little Shop of Horrors kicks off with the promise of a lot of fun. The opening, titular doo-wop number is full of spirit (aided by choreographer Brian Cowing's homage to '50s-era backup singers) and is well sung by the trio of street urchins - played by Monique Abry, Heather Botts, and Nyla Watson - who showcase impressive solo belt voices and tight harmonies. With my head bopping and my lips longing to sing along, I believed I was in for a raucous good time during Friday's performance. However, the Showboat's production wilts as the carnivorous plant at the center of the action grows.
While some of the blame lies with composer Alan Menken and playwright/lyricist Howard Ashman for shaping their comedy/horror rock musical with the highest energy at the beginning yet dwindling humor and amusement as it progresses, my main issues with director Jalayne Riewerts' production are the flat characterizations and limiting puppetry mechanics.
As Seymour, the adult orphan and plant-shop assistant who discovers a unique, blood-sucking, people-eating plant, Darian Lunsford is the quintessential nerd, from his habit of constantly pushing his glasses up his nose to his annoying laugh. Yet while Lunsford embodies Seymour's dorkiness, he misses his heart, and is too one-note. That one note is impressive, but it lacks substance - without character shading and depth, it's difficult to connect with Seymour and root for him to succeed - and when Lunsford's character starts feeding people to the plant, the disconnect with Seymour widens, because as an accessory to murder, he's easy not to like.
And then there's the plant, Audrey II. The pod's first incarnation - as a smallish bud in a normal-sized houseplant pot - is eye-catching for its mix of shimmering, metallic green with pink trim. But while this look (which is either an inspiration of costume designer Dusty Shaffer or Riewerts or both, as the program doesn't specify) works for the smaller versions of the plant, as Audrey II increases in size, the colors and metallic sheen of the plant's "flesh" become too glamorous, taking a lot of edge off what's supposed to be a threatening creature. While I quite like that Audrey II is female in the Showboat's production - voiced with moxie and sung with amusing attitude by Nyla Watson - the pink-yarn pigtails that further display the plant's gender are tacky and cheap-looking, and the large, pink lips in the final version are too luscious, rendering Audrey II more showgirl than murderous menace to the human race. I will say that I was impressed by the design - I liked Audrey II's color scheme, feminine characteristics, and wart-like bumps on the pod's fourth incarnation - but still didn't find the look appropriate for the character.
On top of the design issues, whether due to mechanical limitations or lack of proper training, puppeteer Cole Mitchell Rauch didn't move the final version of Audrey II's mouth in sync with Watson's deliveries during Friday's performance. Standing inside Audrey II, Rauch pretty much just opens and shuts the plant's mouth while speaking or singing, with seemingly no attempt to match the movements with the words. The effect is so distracting that it breaks the illusion of the plant being sentient, which kind of ruins the show, or at least derails it.
All is not lost, though. The street urchins continue to be the most amusing part of Riewerts' presentation, though none of their subsequent songs are as much fun as their opening number. Randi Garza ignores previous incarnations of Audrey - Seymour's co-worker and love interest - by trading the squeaky-voiced-airhead routine for a more realistic woman with a consistent Brooklyn accent, and her song "Somewhere That's Green" is the most emotionally stirring of the evening's offerings. Garza starts the piece with a dreamy, happy tone, and eventually shifts to a sort of embarrassment over this silly dream, ending with a sad longing for something she seems to know she'll never have.
Anthony Sagaria's dentist is the expectedly welcome jerk of a sadist, displaying a blend of creepiness and sexiness; Shaffer dresses him in a dental-uniform shirt with the short sleeves cinched at the top, showing off his biceps, which are also highlighted in Cowing's choreography for Sagaria's song "Dentist!" And as plant-shop owner Mr. Mushnik, Rob Engelson is in his prime during his number "Mushnik & Son." As he sings of adopting Seymour, Engelson clearly portrays the entirety of his character's limitations - his greed, insincerity, and self-interest.
Still, the individual performances don't add much dimension to the Showboat's Little Shop of Horrors, which Menken's and Ashman's musical requires to be of interest beyond being a collection of pleasant songs and passing entertainment.
Little Shop of Horrors runs at the Clinton Area Showboat Theatre (303 Riverview Road, Clinton) through June 10, and tickets and information are available by calling (563)242-6760 or visiting ClintonShowboat.org.