Theatreworks USA’s new production of Joe Iconis’s musical The Plant That Ate Dirty Socks is so dripping with cool, in fact, you shouldn’t be surprised to see New York’s ice cream vendors picketing outside its berth at the Lucille Lortel Theatre. Or if taking your son or daughter to this roundly charming hour-long show not only convinces him or her that theatre is hip, but starts a lifelong addiction for which the only cure is more.
From the instant Jason Williams bounds onstage at the start of the show, pounding his fist in the air and shouting “woohoo!” as he extols the endless virtues of the first day of seventh grade, you can tell you’re in for a great time. Iconis’s driving, fast-bouncing song, sung with such exuberance by the driving, fast-bouncing Williams, captures all the uncertain but unquestioning expectation of youth. You’ll be instantly transported back to an age when you really believed anything could happen.
That’s crucial, because in this show (as the title suggests) pretty much anything can and does. Based on Nancy McArthur’s popular series of children’s books, Iconis’s show tells the story of two brothers, messy Michael (Williams) and neatnik Norman (Lance Rubin), who learn to love each other while caring for some very strange plants they grew with magical mail-order seeds. Norman’s plant Fluffy and Michael’s plant Stanley don’t have much more in common than their owners do, except for their appetite for one particular piece of clothing. (Stanley prefers the dirty kind, Fluffy takes them clean.)
Michael and Norman have to cope with the usual skeptical parents (Lorinda Lisitza and Kilty Reidy) and nosey friends (bratty cheerleader Patty Jenkins is played by Lauren Marcus; eighth-grade taste arbiter Jason is played by Jeffrey Omura), but they’re ready for the challenge. Keeping their plants properly fed, though, is another matter, as is the prestigious science fair both boys aim to win.
Laundry? Botany? Science fair? Iconis and musical director Jana Zielonka inject these mundane topics with such potent jolts of tuneful frivolity, even those with ages well into double digits will be hard-pressed to resist their allure. My personal favorite number was the infectious “Plants Make Wonderful Pets,” but nearly every song soars: Michael and Norman share a gleeful paean to their pristine privacy in “Welcome to My Room”; spin their dreams of glory in the romantically rocking “If I Won the Science Fair”; face their famished flora in the breathless “I Saw It Suck Up a Sock”; and face down their gossipy neighbors in the buoyantly buzzing “Talk of the Town.”
Director John Simpkins and choreographer Jennifer Werner keep the show pulsing with all the energy of a Saturday-morning cartoon marathon, while Michael Schweikardt’s sets, Tracy Christensen’s costumes, and Chris Dallos’s lights summon up all the accordant visual appeal. Eric Wright’s plant puppets are endearing, and are given luscious life by mostly unseen manipulator Michael Schupbach.
The show’s biggest drawback is that its performers don’t blend easily into these surroundings. Rubin’s angular five-o’clock-shadow face (unusual for a fourth grader) and overly adenoidal delivery, Reidy’s grimacing grin and Lisitza’s (literal) nail-biting angst, Marcus’s vein-throbbing threateneuse, and Omura’s unconvincing letterman wannabe test the boundaries of convincing cartoonishness. Williams, however, is a total treat as Michael, making him equal parts athletic, gawky, and needy - the epitome of a seventh grader struggling to come into his own. He makes it work that Michael seems to come from another planet.
Speaking of which, it should probably be mentioned that The Plant That Ate Dirty Socks doesn’t quite measure up to that more famous ravenous-plant musical, Little Shop of Horrors: It’s got (a lot) less blood, (a lot) fewer surprises, and (a few) more nicks pocking its entertaining exterior. But it crackles and delights nonetheless, and could be ideal for preparing children for Little Shop - even if that show’s message about not feeding hungry greenery runs counter to this one’s, which will have your kids - and maybe even you - itching for Fluffy and Stanley to scarf down their next socks.
The Plant That Ate Dirty Socks