Good parodies are a little like Dorothy Gale's ruby slippers. You have to believe in their admittedly bizarre reality if the shows, like the shoes, are going to take you anywhere.
"Little Shop of Horrors," playing at the East County Performing Arts Center through Sunday, isn't going anywhere fast. That is not the fault of Howard Ashman's and Alan Menken's clever, much-produced musical comedy script that pokes fun at everything from B horror and science-fiction flicks (including the 1960 Roger Corman film on which the show is based) to dumb blondes, nebbish geniuses and the public's insatiable, self-destructive appetite for the trendy.
The problem is that this production, by and large, does not believe in itself. It tries too hard to be funny, not succeeding nearly as well as it would have if the admittedly jokey characters were played with a bit more heart.
Also, this being a musical, it would have been nice if more of the principals could sing.
One of the saving graces of the show is Richard Hochberg as Seymour, the sad sack young man in the back of Mushnik's Skid Row florist shop who discovers the plant that changes his life. Hochberg walks with the funny, apologetic slouch of the young Woody Allen, but his Seymour is not a sardonic commentator on life. He is a dreamer.
Seymour is intensely loyal to Mushnik even though Mushnik takes terrible advantage of him. He also yearns for his co-worker, Audrey, a blonde bimbo with a heart of gold, who dates a sadistic dentist, nicely played by Peter Heuchling, who takes terrible advantage of her.
When Seymour's one-of-a-kind plant brings him fame, the regard of Mushnik and, ultimately, the love of Audrey, he is determined to keep his ticket to the good life at all costs. But those costs are high. He soon finds out that his plant has a taste for human blood and each time it gets a little, it grows bigger and wants more.
The plant, with its Audrey Hepburn neck and Jaws-like mouth, is the real star of the show. Thanks to the strong voice of Dan Tullis Jr. and the effective design and puppeteering skill of Lisa Aimee Sturz, it also sings and dances better than most of the cast.
Not that there's a lot of competition.
Gordon Jump of "WKRP in Cincinnati" disappoints as Mushnik. Why a man who can't sing or create a credible characterization here would want to be in this show defies explanation.
Joan Ryan renders Audrey about as cute as a cardboard character can be, which is sometimes quite cute indeed. What she misses, however, is every opportunity to make the low-class girl with middle-class dreams touching.
It also doesn't help that Ryan can't quite sing in Audrey's breathy, little girl voice and won't stop trying. The fumbling modulation back and forth between Audrey' singing and that of a far more powerful voice seems as uncomfortable for the performer as it is for the audience.
Technical problems make these matters worse. Musical director Dennis Castellano fails to succeed in getting all of the cast to enunciate, thereby losing some very funny lyrics. Director Glenn Casale does not seem to have taken Chuck McCarroll's disastrous sound into account. Granted that the singers all need microphones to be heard, it would have helped if they didn't have to wreak havoc with the volume by moving closer to and further away from the amplification.
The large stage is a handicap; a smaller one would have made the plant's growth more spooky. Joanne Trunick McMaster's florist shop is unnecessarily drab. Karma Lobsinger's costumes do the job. Raun Yankovich's lighting works best when highlighting the solo songs.
One of the highlights of the show is the trio that comments on the action through singing and dancing. Lita Gaithers, Terrah Smith and Karole Foreman are a powerhouse team whether playing street urchins or sequinned takeoffs of the Supremes. They're too good for this "Little Shop." They deserve a better cast or a spin-off.
"LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS" By Howard Ashman and Alan Menken. Based on the Roger Corman film "Little Shop of Horrors." Director is Glenn Casale. Musical director is Dennis Castellano. Puppet and puppeteering by Lisa Aimee Sturz. Set by Joanne Trunick McMaster. Sound by Chuck McCarroll. Costumes and hair by Karma Lobsinger. Lighting by Raun Yankovich. Technical director is James Carey. Stage manager is Scott Rogers. With Gordon Jump, Joan Ryan, Richard Hochberg, Dan Tullis Jr., Peter Heuchling, Lita Gaithers, Terrah Smith and Karole Foreman. At 8 p.m. through Saturday and 7:30 p.m. Sunday with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2:30. At the East County Performing Arts Center, 210 E. Main St., El Cajon.