Ray of Light Theatre
|Mary Kalita & Sam Faustine|
|Katrina McGraw, Phaedra Johnson & Jacqueline Dennis|
Time and again, Ray of Light finds some of the best voices and creative talent in the Bay Area to electrify its stage. The moment the three Skid Row drop-outs — Chiffon (Phaedra Johnson), Crystal (Katrina McGraw), and Ronnette (Jacqueline Dennis) – blend and blast their Motown sounds of “shing-a-lang,” “sha-la-la,” and “sh-bop” as they sing about the “little shoppa horrors,” there is no doubt the evening is going to be a rousing winner. Once the three are joined by the entire cast for the first big number, “Downtown (Skid Row),” the whole joint is jumping, swaying, and doing all they can to resist singing along. As the three appear time and again crouched in some dark corner, peering high in the rafters with the band, or joined in dance lines as shadows to the main characters of the story, this doo-wop Greek Chorus uses their smooth, snappy, sassy moves and steps to show off their fabulous, nightclub-ready voices. The Johnson/McGraw/Dennis trio is well worth the price of the ticket and together – in my opinion — are the big stars of the evening among a cast full of other excellent singers/performers.
Sam Faustine and Mary Kalita are a fine matched pair as the dorky but cute Seymour in his dumpy, plaid vest and over-sized glasses and as the tight-skirted, sweet, and shy Audrey, who sports a black eye from her dentist and a kind heart for Seymour. When Seymour sings “Grow for Me” to his still sickly plant, he brings a boyish voice that cuts through the air with a sound right out of a 1950s TV show. In a later number (“Feed Me [Git It]”), he initially swoons in easily-lifted tones, “I don’t know,” and then hammers in aggressive duet with Audrey II, “The guy sure looks like plant food to me.” Mr. Faustine lets his vocals fully express his love for Audrey when they both excel with heart-swelled intensity in the duet reprise of “Somewhere That’s Green” as Seymour reaches with fabulous falsetto notes to dream of a life that is not to be.
Even more convincing in her singing is Mary Kalita as Audrey. In her initial “Somewhere That’s Green,” her voice rich in Bowery dialect is full of naïve, dreamy hope — almost cartoonish at times in its tone but with the dynamics, well-timed pauses, and threads of clarity that speak volumes of her musical abilities. As the musical progresses, Audrey gains her confidence of character that is beautifully reflected in full-voiced, resounding numbers like “Suddenly Seymour.” Ms. Kalita takes the abused and bruised, self-deprecating Audrey and turns her into a joyful, exuberant girlfriend who sings, “With sweet understanding, Seymour’s my man.”
Another absolute stand-out in this cast is Brendon North who not only plays the sleazy, sick-minded, but still sensuous dentist, Orin, but also a number of other bizarre walk-ons including an all-too-gay NBC executive, a “Life Magazine” editor in drag, and an oily, glad-handed talent agent named Skip Snip. But it is as the nitrous-oxide addict Orin that Mr. North gets to shine, singing “Dentist” in his deep, guttural voice that oozes with evil, matched by eyes that look like big glass balls glaring their devilment.
Not always measuring up vocally but bringing a character that looks at times like he stepped out of the Sunday Funnies is Tim Hart at Mr. Mushnik. His Jewish characterizations are endearing and funny without stepping too far over the line. When he sings “Mushnik and Son” with Seymour, the choreographed sequence designed by Lauren Rosi of exaggerated dance steps from tango to ballet swing (and ending in a pose Michelangelo might find perfect for a ceiling) is nothing short of hilarious, as witnessed by the uproar from the audience.
|Audrey II (Jessica Coker) & Seymour (Sam Faustine)|
An innovation Director Jason Hoover has brought to this production is to cast the voice of Audrey II as a woman rather than a deep-voiced man. Jessica Coker certainly wakes up all listening (including Seymour) when they first hear her high, feminine speaking voice, “Feed me … Feed me now!” As the plant grows more monstrous in size and demands, Ms. Coker lets loose in “Suppertime” with voice big and boisterous. However, there is missing in this Audrey II the over-whelming, jarring, deep-welled vocals that can make the wide-mouthed mammoth bigger than earthly life could possibly ever produce.