BWW Reviews: Wilkinson, Waller and Gary Hoff's Killer Set Highlight Tennessee Rep's LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS

May 1
10:56 AM 2012

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Martha Wilkinson is a force of nature-onstage, offstage, no matter where she goes, the woman is a force of nature and, throughout her career, she's taken on some of musical theater's most coveted roles proving along the way that she can do virtually anything. Now, in Tennessee Repertory Theatre's staging of Little Shop of Horrors, Wilkinson adds yet another stellar performance to her resume, playing the campy musical's offbeat heroine with the ease, grace and unerring comic timing that is her stock in trade.

In short, Wilkinson's performance as Audrey, the flower shop girl with a penchant for ending up with the wrong guy, is one of the best we've seen of the role and its one that yet again establishes her as Music City's queen of musical theater.

Paired with Patrick Waller (whom I referred to as "the male Martha Wilkinson" the first time I ever met him face-to-face-and he didn't punch me, rather he thanked me for the compliment) as Seymour Krelborn, the nebbishy nerd who achieves acclaim and notoriety via the man-eating plant at the center of the plot, Wilkinson is clearly in her element. And together with her old pal Waller, they bring the characters to life with good humor, surprising depth and more heart than you could ever imagine.

Directed by Rene Dunshee Copeland, Tennessee Rep's Little Shop of Horrors is given a darker, more somber and dour ambience in keeping with the source material (the musical is based on a Roger Corman B-movie) and book writer Howard Ashman's slightly more sinister outlook for the musical. Presented in the somewhat intimate confines of TPAC's Andrew Johnson Theatre, Little Shop starts out slowly, its energy building throughout the first act and blossoming to full flower in the show's second stanza.

Gary C. Hoff, 2011 First Night Honoree and Tennessee Rep's extraordinary scenic designer, envelops the Johnson Theatre with his requisite theatrical magic, converting the black box into the very evocation of the skid row of your dreams, providing an imaginative and cleverly produced backdrop for the musical's fantastical plot (unless, of course, you consider a man-eating plant devouring all he surveys to be commonplace). Phillip Franck's atmospheric lighting helps to capture the tone of the piece, as well as lighting the way for this journey to the center of Audrey II's quest for world dominance.

Pam Atha choreographs the onstage hijinks with her usual flair, while Paul Carrol Binkley's musicians deliver the show's score with an easy professionalism that's come to be expected anytime Binkley takes on a new theater assignment.

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Copeland again displays her deft hand in directing the onstage action, without beating her audience over the head with heavy-handed theatrics. Instead, her focus remains sharp, allowing her nine-person ensemble to have a whole lot of fun while remaining true to the B-movie melodramatics that provide the show's inspiration.

The impeccably paired Wilkinson and Waller bring Audrey and Seymour to life with much sincerity, leavened by zaniness, and their shared trust underscores their onstage pairing with believability.

Wilkinson shows off her glorious voice in Act One's "Somwhere That's Green," giving a master class in how to "act" a showtune and thereby claiming it as your own. Her second act duet with Waller on "Suddenly, Seymour" (is there any song from any show more hauntingly romantic and hopeful?) is beautifully rendered and alone is worth the price of a ticket-the rest of the show can be viewed as a mere lagniappe to the bountiful feast provided by this one number.

Derek Whittaker makes his Tennessee Rep debut in the role of shop owner Mr. Mushnik, the manipulative, calculating flowermonger who sees the prospects of his own future abloom in Seymour's killer weed. Whittaker's performance is perfectly modulated and multi-dimensional as he shows off his total command of comedy: Can anyone do a doubletake with more panache that he? Nope, it can't be done, simple as that.

The estimable Bobby Wyckoff, who just isn't onstage enough for my tastes, takes on a whole slew of roles-chief among them Audrey's sadistic boyfriend, Orin the dentist-and is marvelous, showing off his versatility in the process.

Cast as the show's Greek chorus who, in actuality, are a trio of streetwise urchins who go by the names of Chiffon, Crystal and Ronette (an homage to the girl groups of the 1960s, whose music inspired Alan Menken's tuneful score), Laura Matula, Aleta Myles and Jennifer Whitcomb-Oliva make the most of their time onstage while providing the authentic sound needed to sell Menken's off-kilter lyrics.

Finally, kudos to Bakari King (who provides his amazing voice for Audrey II) and Pete Carden (who provides the physical movement for the violent vegetation), who bring Audrey II to life with such personality and hilarity.

Little Shop of Horrors. Music and lyrics by Alan Menken. Book by Howard Ashman. Directed by Rene Dunshee Copeland. Music direction by Paul Carrol Binkley. Choreography by Pam Atha. Presented by Tennessee Repertory Theatre at TPAC's Andrew Johnson Theatre. Through  May 19. For details, go to www.TennesseeRep.org.

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