Aug 11, 2011

[Theater] Little Shop of Horrors (Ateneo Blue Repertory)

Little Shop of Horrors (Ateneo Blue Repertory)So I was invited to watch the preview show for Ateneo Blue Repertory's latest production last August 9, which was nice thing. I don't often get invited to such things plus it's even rarer that I get to rearrange my work schedule so that I can actually go to these "regular" events. But one thing led to another and things generally worked out this time around.

I think I discussed the challenge of evaluating college theater productions in the past, probably when I reviewed the last BlueRep play that I had the opportunity to see. Some would argue that college theater is generally still a "training ground" for theater professionals and hopefuls. I suppose you could compare it to the minor leageus in terms of sports versus going full professional.

I generally hold to the thinking that you shouldn't lower your standards when evaluating a college production. Perhaps for grade school and high school shows that may be the case, but college shows often involve talent that we already consider to be adults. And if you don't hold them to the normal standards, then how can you expect them to better themselves in the long run, right? 

And so when I first heard that BlueRep was staging a musical as challenging as this one, I was definitely curious to see how things would pan out. They had certainly set a high target for themselves with this particular production and I was rooting for them to manage to pull off a decent rendition of this show.

Little Shop of Horrors is an off-Broadway musical by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman as based on the 1960 black comedy of the same name. The musical had also been adapted into a rather popular 1986 movie, which is probably how most people remember the musical.

In a 1960's downtown area only known as Skid Row, we are introduced to young Seymour Krelborn (Luis Marcelo) who works at a struggling flower shop owned by Mr. Mushnik (Darrell Uy) along with Audrey (Maronne Cruz). While on the brink of closing the store entirely, Seymour and Audrey suggest to Mr. Mushnik that perhaps sales would pick up if they featured a strange and unusual plant in the window in order to attract customers. And Seymour has such a plant that he had acquired from a Chinese florist that he has named Audrey II (Tina Ramos).

Surprisingly, it works and new customers start to flock in just to see the strange and unusual plant. However Audrey II is unlike any other plant that has been encountered before and doesn't seem to enjoy regular plant food. Eventually Seymour figures out that the plant feeds on human blood in order to thrive and nothing else. Thus as he struggles to continue to feed Audrey II with his own blood despite the detrimental effects it has on his general health. All the while he continues to pine over Audrey, who is stuck in an abusive relationship with the sadistic dentist Orin Scrivello (Gelo Lantaco).

Oh, and since it's a musical, the whole story is narrated / annotated by the Greek chorus-style trio of Crystal (Roxci de Leon), Ronette (Cassie Manalastas) and Chiffon (Abi Sulit), who were probably the best musical highlight of the whole show. Then again I suppose you could argue that they were designed that way.

On the whole, I was very impressed with the singing abilities of the people gathered for this production. Most of the songs went off without a hitch and the individuals involved had some pretty impressive pipes! And it's always good to see talent at this level with individuals so young and barely at the true beginning of their potential careers in the future (should they pursue theater professionally, that is.)

I also appreciated the initial approach to presenting Audrey II, probably the most technically challenging aspect of the show. Having Tina on stage in a shiny yet generally somber get-up with a plant puppet around her hand was pretty fun. Thus it sort of borrowed from shows like Avenue Q where the performers are clearly seen on stage together with their puppet counterpart. It's a shame that they didn't create alternate puppets to depict Audrey II in her various stages of growth, but then not much can be done with that now.

However I did feel the show had some significant direction issues that affected the entire performance. While I acknowledge preview shows may not be the best example of the production as a whole, I feel that the challenges the play experienced are not something that can be corrected with additional rehearsal times alone. Toff de Venecia needs to seriously think about how he wants this show to move forward in the future if he wants to fix those concerns in the future.

The biggest issue that may still possibly be corrected is how much of the action is lost because of the limited audience sight lines of the Ateneo Fine Arts Theater. The venue is admittedly very intimate and thus any mistakes are amplified. But more significantly, any action that takes place on the area of the stage closest to the front becomes difficult to understand or just plain see, especially when the actors are sprawled on the floor in various states of death or whatever. Thus a lot of the sequences just couldn't be fully appreciated since we couldn't see what was going on - and this was despite being just in the fifth row of the theater or so.

Ellen GreeneCover of Ellen GreeneClearly the actors used the 1986 movie as a strong influence or peg for their characters for the most part. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, provided the actors also made sure not to limit their depiction of the characters by the previous performances seen. Of all the actors, I felt Maronne Cruz did this best considering she was reprising a role pretty much created by and totally associated with the amazing Ellen Greene. Her performance had echoes of Greene's manner of bringing the character to life and yet at the same time she made sure to put enough of herself into the role to be comfortable. Tina Ramos also did a pretty good job as Audrey II, and this goes beyond her rather impressive vocal abilities. However the aforementioned direction issues had her in some rather awkward positions, but that's besides the point.

Little Shop of Horrors - Luis MarceloThe rest of the cast was okay, but struggled with their efforts to either recreate the movie characters or to just convey the accents of the original piece. Thus while Luis Marcelo had a very impressive singing voice most of the time, both his singing and dialog would be killed whenever he focused too much on sounding like the mousy little Seymour. The trio was also very, very musically impressive but at times their efforts with depicting African-American accents was weird to a limited degree.

I'm most concerned with Darrell Uy, who really didn't stand a chance of effecting some sort of an accent that you would consider to be even remotely Jewish in style. And while that was central to the humor of the original 1960 movie and to some extent the musical that followed, I felt it made him almost unintelligible for most of the play. Gelo Lantaco did a great job of trying to convey so many different personalities given the number of characters that he had to portray, however in time the way he did this began to blur and it was harder and harder to differentiate one from the other. Plus he can only really laugh in one particular way and thus continually using that same laugh outside of the role of Orin.

On the whole, it's a production with some very great talent involved and with a lot of potential to boot. However, the lack of consistent directorial vision and bad stage management took a lot away from this production. Don't even get me started on the rather elaborate and pseudo-metaphorical death scenes. The combination of weird blocking and odd use of strobe lights really didn't work for me.

Blue Repertory's Little Shop of Horrors is still a lot of fun, and that's part of the intrinsic value of the musical itself. Perhaps if the group embraced the camp more instead of pushing the macabre black comedy angle, then it might just work. If anything it's a shame that I sincerely believe that the show has a potential to be so much more and yet instead it really felt like a non-professional school production. In that regard it gets 3 cases of me not figuring out what's going on at the front of the stage during the performance out of a possible 5.





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