Derelicts whiz by in wheelchairs, hoboes stumble along on crutches and a nine-member gang of female street toughs boldly sing about the pressure of life in the ghetto.
The Skid Row neighborhood envisioned in the PHAMALY Theatre Company’s current production of “Little Shop of Horrors” is dark, bustling and heartbreaking. It’s a lush tableau sketched out at the beginning of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s classic musical – the audience meets the denizens of Skid Row in the first two tunes, before the musical’s signature man-eating plant makes its first appearance and before the audience meets protagonists Seymour and Audrey.
Those scenes that play out in the 360-degree structure of the Space Theatre at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts serve as an introduction to a funny, nuanced and loving production of “Little Shop,” a staging that meets the show’s considerable challenges while adding its own distinctive spin. The monster Audrey II comes to life in five separate puppets designed by Cory Gilstrap; the leads offer show-stopping vocal performance and novel takes on the characters; and musical director Donna Debreceni and her band do justice to Ashman’s catchy and timeless score.
For the uninitiated, the show centers around Seymour (Daniel Traylor), a hopelessly nerdy orphan who’s working at Mushnik’s Skid Row Florists when he discovers a “strange and interesting” plant in the wholesale flower district after a total eclipse of the sun. Seymour brings the fledgling plant back to Mushnik’s store, hoping the specimen will attract customers and win favor from Audrey (Kathi Wood), his co-worker who’s bruised and battered by her sadistic boyfriend (Jeremy Palmer), a dentist who revels in pain. The plant, named Audrey II in honor of Seymour’s secret crush, starts to attract customers and even earn him fame and fortune, but only after Seymour discovers that the creature subsists on human blood.
The macabre jokes and violence kick off from there. Murder, mutilation and mayhem unroll to the sounds of sweet love tunes and soulful ditties.
As Seymour, Daniel Traylor deftly dodges the simple caricature of a nerd. Torn between moral duty and the lure of success, Traylor invests his role with a deep earnestness and vulnerability, qualities that perfectly play off the tender portrait of Audrey created by Kathi Wood. Wood is relevatory in her first lead role in a PHAMALY show, and her vocal performance is one of the production’s best. Indeed, her duet with Traylor for “Suddenly Seymour” is a highlight of the show. Traylor also plays well off of Mark Dissette as Mushnik – the duo’s delivery of “Mushnik and Son” with choreography by Ronni Gallup is one of the show’s few lighthearted moments.
As the voice of Audrey II, Aurora resident Don Mauck gives macabre life to the show’s giant plant monster from outer space, offering a soulful delivery on tunes like “Feed Me (Git It),” “Suppertime” and “Mean Green Mother,” a tune originally penned for the 1986 film. Of course, the character’s onstage power is completed in Gilstrap’s brilliant puppetry. The craft is impressive on all five puppets, from the handheld version of the plant that appears in the first act to the 16-foot tall puppet that takes up an entire vom and requires multiple operators to control its pods, roots and massive jaws.
The basics of the classic are all here: gore, macabre humor, a moving love story and eye-popping special effects. Wilson and the crew take a few liberties with the basic book, expanding the number of Ronnettes (the doo-woppy female Greek chorus of the show) from three to nine. The move may serve as a bit of a shock for traditionalists, but those added numbers help give the Space stage a gritty, claustrophobic and urban feel.
What really makes this show a standout are the insights offered by the company itself, the nation’s only handicapped performing arts organization. As director Steve Wilson notes in the program, “PHAMALY seeks stories that are informed by the struggles of the disenfranchised, as our unusual population fills these tales with deeper meaning before a line spoken or a note is sung.”
Here, that deeper meaning comes in a fuller portrait of a community that’s been neglected and overlooked. In that setting, the temptation to give in to the seduction of instant success, fortune and love feels all the more poignant.
THREE AND A HALF STARS OUT OF FOUR
Reach reporter Adam Goldstein at email@example.com or 720-449-9707