Hunter Foster, Kerry Butler, and Audrey IIin Little Shop of Horrors(Photo © Paul Kolnik)
Hunter Foster, Kerry Butler, and Audrey II
in Little Shop of Horrors
(Photo © Paul Kolnik)
The battalion of producers responsible for the current revival of Little Shop of Horrors apparently made the right decision when, earlier this year, they scuppered the director and almost the entire cast of the show's pre-Broadway production in Florida (which I didn't see) and hired Jerry Zaks to whip things into shape. This busy but not always effective fellow, who has deleted his affiliations with The Civil War and The Capeman from his Playbill bio, has summoned all of his strengths for this assignment. He's pulled off a show that should make West 52nd Street, where Hairspray is still packing them in on the south side of the block, an even more traveled thoroughfare for families as hungry for popular entertainment as the show's flesh-eating plant, Audrey II, is for its next meal.

Just about everyone involved with this staging of the Howard Ashman-Alan Menken tuner, which was a dark little delight when it opened at the WPA in 1982 and then transferred to the Orpheum, has done his or her utmost to make the show as cute and cunning as possible. In so doing, they've shown once again, as Avenue Q did only a few weeks back in a smaller theater, that it's possible to trot out for eager Broadway consumption a musical with a small cast (12 here), one basic set, and no overblown special effects. Okay, there is one prominent special effect: blood-thirsty Audrey II itself, which comes in a variety of sizes from budding to so big that actors have to be concealed in its roots. (The Audrey II puppets have been beautifully designed by the Jim Henson Company and Martin P. Robinson. Who knows what percentage of the show's budget this creature ate up along with everything else it consumes?)

The musical is adapted from Roger Corman's 1960 quick-flick, screenplay by Charles Griffith. For the sake of newcomers, the story concerns Seymour Krelbourn (Hunter Foster), a shlemiel of a worker at Mushnik's Skid Row flower shop, who has come into possession of a mysterious Venus flytrap mutation. Soon, Seymour comes to realize that plant food and water simply won't suffice where Audrey II (eventually voiced by Michael-Leon Wooley) is concerned. Our hero names the plant after the nubile co-worker he pines for, a dim bulb of a young woman so unsure of herself that her idea of romance is being slapped around by Orin Scrivello (Douglas Sills), a dentist/biker. Further knotting the tale is Seymour's boss, Mr. Mushnik (Rob Bartlett), who morphs from tyrant to pushover as Seymour's newfound botanical talents are applied to the audience-drawing Audrey II. This doesn't mean that Mushnik gets to remain a benevolent employer throughout the narrative, which is set in 1960.

As a matter of fact, nothing in Little Shop of Horrors remains benevolent. Narrated by a neighborhood girl group whose members are Chiffon (DeQuina Moore), Crystal (Trisha Jeffrey), and Ronnette (Carla J. Hargrove), the musical is a mock fairy tale very much influenced by the Grimm Brothers and having a good deal in common with Sweeney Todd. Note that both Sweeney and Little Shop are about failing businesses that are saved when human corpses begin to be used as food. In the latter blood-curdler, Seymour begins to enjoy the notoriety that Audrey II brings him and, for a while, becomes readier and readier to find victims that will appease the voracious plant.

The horrible beauty of this hugely enjoyable musical is that, for all its punchy punch lines and its Ashman-Menken ditties full of pert melodies and impertinent rhymes, it is a nasty allegory. The point it makes as Seymour almost loses track of the life he could have with the non-flora Audrey is that the greedy end up feeding on the greedy. Furthermore, the authors posit humorously that no one with a ravenous appetite for success at any cost can be certain he won't be swallowed whole by someone with similar cravings. As such, the show is an allegory for all time; with its satirically apocalyptic denouement, it might even be read as an apposite comment on the policy of America's currently prevailing government towards Iraq.

Carla J. Hargrove, DeQuina Moore, and Trisha Jeffreyin Little Shop of Horrors(Photo © Paul Kolnik)
Carla J. Hargrove, DeQuina Moore, and Trisha Jeffrey
in Little Shop of Horrors
(Photo © Paul Kolnik)
Little Shop of Horrors is so pessimistic about human behavior that, as I was leaving the theater, more than one longtime fan of the show grumbled to me that this version seems somehow leavened. Maybe it has been -- but not via Donald Holder's lighting design, which is satisfyingly moody, or T. Richard Fitzgerald's sound design, which includes a few scary stings. Nor is there anything sweetened-up about William Ivey Long's costumes, which include lots of street clothes, three matching Supremes gowns for the ubiquitous narrators, and one very sexy leather outfit for the human Audrey. The show's musical supervisor is Michael Kosarin, who has contributed new arrangements. (Is he the one who turned "Mushnik and Son," wherein Seymour and his employer bond, into a klezmer treat? Bravo to whomever.)

Perhaps it is true that, going for the across-the-boards success needed to return capitalization on such an enterprise, director Zaks has eased up on the macabre. But if so, it's only a matter of degree. (Across the street, the shaded cynicism that John Waters threaded through his Hairspray movie has been more noticeably diluted on that property's journey to the Broadway musical stage.) The misanthropic attitude of Little Shop is inextricable from the script, and there's nothing lighthearted about the production's closing images; the laughs they elicit are simultaneously straightforward and nervous.

It would be unfair to charge any of the players with holding back as they heave themselves around Scott Pask's set with its stormy Van Gogh sky, its row of blue-grey tenements, and its dingy flower shop. Hunter Foster, who left Urinetown to join another theatrical display of not-so-mock gloom, is fun to watch as an unsuccessful nerd who matures into a successful nerd. Rob Bartlett takes a pinch of Zero Mostel and a dollop of Jackie Gleason to play Mr. Mushnik, and the result is appealing. Douglas Sills piles laugh upon laugh as the vain Orin and a handful of other equally comic visitors -- one of them Clare Boothe Luce in a fur collar.

Snapping their fingers and swaying their hips to Kathleen Marshall's spare but on-the-mark choreography, Hargrove, Jeffrey, and Moore sing and act their roles with jubilant malice. Kerry Butler sings Audrey's "Suddenly Seymour" like a bird on a wire but, whether or not she's seen predecessor Ellen Greene interpretation of the role, she seems to be doing a pale imitation. Oh, well, you can't have everything. But with this Little Shop of Horrors, you can have almost everything.