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'Little Shop of Horrors' (PG-13)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
December 19, 1986

Put away those weedeaters, boys and girls! Here comes a horticultural horror story with a Motown sound that brings the greenhouse down. It's mulch ado about a killer cabbage that makes slaw out of a florist's customers in "Little Shop of Horrors," a hybrid of the stage musical and the cult movie classic from which it sprouted.

Rick Moranis, the "Ghostbusters" keymaster, works a variation on the neighborly nebbish as a flower store nerd who raises the cruciferous carnivore and names it Audrey II after the girl next door. Trouble is, it's not a girl. It's a cross between ornamental kale and Dave Butz.

Levi Stubbs, one of the original Four Tops, is the voracious voice of the one-ton plant, rapping from its leafy, purple maw and flapping its 12-foot tendrils like a Solid Gold Dancer. "I'm a mean, green mutha from another planet," warns the boogeying Audrey II, his flora superbly manipulated by 40 valiant puppeteers.

Opposite Audrey II are Ellen Greene and Vincent Gardenia, aptly named costars. Greene is Audrey I, a B-team Loni Anderson with a voice like somebody stepped on a squeaky-toy. It's a role the actress has played on stage for two years, a part that fits her like a gardening glove. Ditzy and dressed in Kim Novak's cast-offs, she gives this throwaway role resonance and sweetness.

Gardenia is the fatally optimistic owner of Mushnik's Flower Shop, a rundown Skid Row store, where Mushnik remains despite the urban decay. As the story begins, Mushnik is about to lay off Audrey and Seymour when Seymour buys a peculiar plant from an ancient Mandarin during a total eclipse of the sun. Customers soon crowd the shop to get a look at the potted pod, and business booms.

Alas, the baby bloomer wilts. Like everybody else with a sick plant, Seymour tries vitamins, food spikes, more sun, less sun, etc. Not until he pricks his finger on a rose does Seymour learn of his potted pet's true appetite. At first, Audrey II is satisfied with daily transfusions from the ever more anemic Seymour. Then one day, now 10 times its size, it demands, "Feed me. I'm hungry." And soon, our hero is supplying his plant with deserving sacrifices -- like a biker dentist played with super silliness by Steve Martin. "That guy sure looks like plant food to me," sings big, little Audrey.

Moranis and Greene also make beautiful music together. They're a perfectly lovable pair of all-American losers in love, a parody of Broadway musical sweethearts in a ludicrous but touching duet. "Suddenly Seymour beside you," sings a dewy-eyed Moranis, whose performance is as cherishable as flowers from a friend. The music is by Alan Menken; the lyrics are by Howard Ashman, who also wrote the screenplay. The original script comes from the 1960 Roger Corman movie.

Virtually every number becomes a show-stopper under the direction of Muppeteer Frank Oz. The staging is at once boisterous and big enough to out-Busby Berkeley but still intimate enough to make the screen seem like a stage. The setting is cartoon squalor, peopled with baritone bums and a Greek chorus of ghetto teens in frou-frou and shoo-bop, like streetsmart Supremes.

In contrast is the suburban never-neverland that is the setting for "Somewhere That's Green," a paean to a Pine Sol-clean dream house -- where, Audrey imagines, she could "bake like Betty Crocker and look like Donna Reed."

There are cameos from Jim Belushi, Christopher Guest, John Candy and Bill Murray, most notable as a middle-class masochist who delights in a root canal by Martin's malicious dentist. The two join in a toothsome production number that includes a shot of the action from inside the mouth, like some gummy proscenium arch.

"The Little Shop of Horrors" is a thoroughly original adaptation, if that's possible. With its toe-tapping cadences, its class cast and its king-sized cabbage, it's destined to become a classic of camp comedy. It's vege-magic.

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