Curtain Calls

Review: 'Spunk'
A 'spunky' show at Plowshares

Up-and-coming authors are often instructed to "write about what you know" – and that's exactly what novelist, folklorist, playwright and poet Zora Neale Hurston did throughout much of her prolific career.
Three of the celebrated author's colorful short stories are vividly brought to life in "Spunk," a lovingly staged and acted "play with music" that opened last weekend courtesy of the Plowshares Theatre Company.
Hurston – who was born around the turn of the 20th century in the all-black, rural town of Eatonville, Florida -celebrated her rich, cultural heritage in ways not always popular with her contemporaries of the Harlem Renaissance. Rather than create black characters who were victimized by whites or who were otherwise downtrodden as a result of white people, Hurston crafted tales about the people she knew and the folklore she heard in the South. Her women were strong; their lives were hard. And there was nary a white person in sight. But since they reflected the "backward Southern way of speaking and living," director/choreographer Ken Roberson once told The Cincinnati Post, that displeased her peers who felt such folktales hurt their movement rather than helped it.
For "Spunk," writer George C. Wolfe adapted stories that tell tales of the "laughin' kind of lovin' kind of hurtin' kind of pain that comes from being human." This is not a straight-forward play, however; nor is it a musical. Instead, it's a highly stylized performance piece that surrounds Hurston's words with choreographed movement, choral narrative and the blues to create a unique theatrical experience.
In "Sweat," Danye Evonnte Brown plays a long-suffering wife whose cheating husband (Cornelius Harris) gets his comeuppance when his plan to scare her away bites him in the ass instead. "Harlem Slang" is the story of two poor but slickly dressed zoot suiters – Mateen Stewart and Walter Lindsey – who try to outdo each other with the ladies. And "The Gilded Six-Bits" is a touching tale about a loving young couple (Brown and Stewart) whose marriage is almost torn apart when the naive wife figures out a way to get the riches she believes her husband deserves.
Janet Cleveland's direction is crisp and imaginative; she beautifully captures the spirit of Hurston's incredible canvas.
Felicia Taha and Michael Turner heat things up during the interludes as narrators Blues Speak Woman and Guitar Man. Turner has many of the women in the audience panting for more, while Taha's singing voice is spectacular. (She does, however, need to project when speaking her dialogue.)
Each of the four "Folks" – the show's ensemble players – are fine in their multiple roles. Most noteworthy is Brown who has a face that is priceless – and she knows how to use it to clearly convey whatever her characters are thinking. And Stewart generates much laughter in "Harlem Slang" and much sympathy in "The Gilded Six-Bits."
A few problems were evident throughout the opening night's performance – missed light cues, actors who didn't pause the dialogue until the laughter subsided and a piano that often dwarfed the singers – but I suspect they've been resolved by now.
"Spunk"Ê Staged Thursday, Saturday and Sunday by Plowshares Theatre Company at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, 315 E. Warren, Detroit, through June 19.Ê Tickets: $15 Р$25. 313-872-0279.
The Bottom Line: If you weren't aware of Hurston's work before seeing this production, don't be surprised if you're craving more immediately after!

Review: 'Little Shop of Horrors'
Faustian tale is wickedly delightful at Fisher Theatre

Those who buy tickets to "Little Shop of Horrors" at Detroit's Fisher Theatre simply to see the infamous plant are in for a very pleasant surprise, indeed!
That's because the touring production of the hit Broadway musical is one heck of a slick – and very entertaining – production!
From the moment the play opens – with three very attractive street urchins who fulfill the role of a Greek Chorus, but with a sweet Motown girl-group sound -it becomes obvious that this is not your grandma's musical. Instead, authors Howard Ashman and Alan Menken have infused "Little Shop" with a blending of "classic rock and classic Broadway" – with more than a tip of the hat to opera – to create a totally fresh and always zany production.
About a monstrous alien plant that talks, sings and eats people – and with plans for world domination!
No, this certainly isn't your typical Broadway fare!
Nor is this a standard touring production, either. Unlike some cheap-looking road shows that slip in and out of town, the producers of "Little Shop" have created a first-rate touring show. The sets are top-notch, the orchestra sounds lush and the cast is uniformly excellent.
And then there's that amazing 18-foot plant – all four versions of it! (How they work I'll leave to your imagination!)
Initially small and ugly, the plant finds a home in the about-to-close Mushnik's Skid Row Florist after being discovered by the store's chief clerk, the nerdy Seymour Krelbourn. As a last gasp effort, Seymour and salesgirl Audrey convince Mushnick to display the "strange and interesting plant" in the storefront window. Once they do, business dramatically increases. However the plant begins to whither until Seymour accidentally discovers what nourishment it needs in order to grow big and strong: fresh human blood!
The more Audrey II grows – Seymour named the plant after the woman he secretly loves – the more blood it demands. And as Seymour quickly discovers, a deal with the devil – whether with pointy horns or pointy leaves – rarely works in your favor!
Several of Ashman and Menken's tunes get memorable renditions, courtesy of director Jerry Zaks' excellent cast.
Especially notable is the booming voice of Michael James Leslie who, offstage, gives life to Audrey II. "Feed Me (Git It)" is evilly powerful and fun.
Jonathan Rayson has several excellent moments as the geeky Seymour.
And the street urchins – played on opening night by Yasmeen Sulieman, Amina S. Robinson and Iris Burruss – are superb with every appearance they make.
But it's Tara Kelly as Audrey who especially stands out. It's a star-filled performance from start to finish.
"Little Shop of Horrors" Presented Tuesday through Sunday at the Fisher Theatre, 3011 W. Grand Blvd., Detroit, May 31 – June 12. Tickets: $25.50 – $72.50.; 313-872-1000. Strong language: Parental digression
The Bottom Line: Although the meek might inherit the Earth, the smart theatergoer will head to the Fisher Theatre for one heck of a fun-filled musical!