An appreciation: Aliquippa High's 'Shop' entertains


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Aliquippa might hope this is prophetic: "A Little Shop of Horrors" is a spirited musical comedy parody about a down-on-its-luck community that gains sudden fame.

The high school's famous alumni run mainly toward football, including Mike Ditka, Ty Law and Darrelle Revis, but it also has a significant musical theater legacy -- what else could you say about a school listing Henry Mancini among its graduates?

In Western Pennsylvania, only Peabody High School with Gene Kelly can rank in that league.

However, traditions come and go, along with changes in industries and demographics. With an enrollment of about 350, the high school is a lot smaller than it once was. So in spite of its legacy, the annual school musical had become a tradition sometimes more honored in memory than observance.

But in the past few years, fresh leadership has been provided by stage director Johnathan Burnett and orchestra conductor/assistant director Will Guess, who hope to reanimate the tradition to generate more student participation and school pride. Two years ago they tackled "Dreamgirls," which, although well-chosen for a predominantly African-American school, is so big and musically ambitious it would challenge a school twice the size. Last year it was "Cinderella."

This year's choice of "Little Shop of Horrors" is more fitting, both in its size (just seven on-stage leads and about seven more in the ensemble) and its off-beat, goofy comedy and hopeful energy. Even staged in a bland study hall or lunch-room, the result was fun.

You could call it a sci-fi comedy.

Mr. Mushnik's nearly bankrupt flower shop, tellingly located on Manhattan's Skid Row, employs hapless plant-nerd Seymour and equally hapless Audrey, trapped in an abusive relationship with a dentist.

Suddenly a magic plant appears which keeps growing and attracting scads of business; only Seymour knows that it lives on blood and starts to demand human flesh.

Call it a pact with the devil -- but funny.

Keyonia McClendon played Audrey with a sweet, defeated appeal and the best voice in the cast.

Donovan Cobb's Seymour had the necessary geek appeal -- you could see them as a couple. John Trone handled the Yiddish-inflected humor of Mushnik, and Joey Perciavalle laid the dentist's self-obsession on thick. Darian Reynolds gave the monster plant voice and personality.

The most attractive roles are three neighborhood girls, Crystal, Chiffon and Ronette (named for 1960s doo wop girl groups), who serve as all-knowing narrators: Jonyae Barton, Italia Nowicki and Justice Jackson showed plenty of spunk. Mr. Guess led an even more spunky pit band of five pros.

OK, this is not exactly the sort of pact Aliquippa or its high school needs to make to revive its past glories. But the show's wit and good spirits, however grisly, kept Sunday afternoon's audience pleasantly entertained. Things do end badly for Seymour and Audrey, but the good-humored entertainment bodes well for Aliquippa High School's musical comedy future.

"Little Shop of Horrors" ran April 26-28. For a complete list of high school musicals in Western Pennsylvania, visit www.post-gazette.com/ae/theater-dance/.

neigh_west - highschoolmusicals

Senior theater critic Christopher Rawson: 412-216-1944.


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