Few sounds are as exciting to me as the opening piano riff of Little Shop of Horrors, the mighty little musical now playing a big revival off-Broadway at the Westside Theatre. With apologies to The Fantasticks, it's the greatest off-Broadway musical ever written, and this new production from director Michael Mayer proves it.
Based on the 1960 Roger Corman flick, Little Shop tells the story of meek flower shop assistant Seymour Krelborn (Jonathan Groff), who finds a strange and interesting carnivorous plant and starts feeding it his own blood. As the plant grows, it begins attracting more business to the shop, which in turn attracts the attention of Seymour's boss, Mr. Mushnik (Tom Alan Robbins). Seymour names the plant "Audrey II" in an effort to impress his coworker, Audrey (Tammy Blanchard), who is trapped in a relationship with a sadistic dentist (Christian Borle). But when Audrey II develops a voice (the terrifyingly soulful Kingsley Leggs) and begins to demand more blood, our floral Faustus has to decide what he is willing to sacrifice for love.
Not counting the Encores! concert starring Jake Gyllenhaal and original Audrey Ellen Greene, the last significant New York production of Little Shop was the 2003 Broadway debut. It comes at a time of several productions across the country, including a major one at Pasadena Playhouse.
But Little Shop has always been a creature of off-Broadway: It ran for years at the Orpheum, where it beat Cats in the musical category for both the 1983 New York Drama Critics' Circle Awards and the Drama Desk Awards (an off-Broadway musical wouldn't repeat this feat until Hamilton in 2015). It has since become one of the most frequently licensed musicals for amateur and stock productions — meaning a significant portion of each off-Broadway audience will be made up of Little Shop veterans.
The overwhelming success of Little Shop solidified the reputation of Alan Menken (music) and Howard Ashman (book and lyrics), a powerful creative team whose lasting cultural influence cannot be overstated. They went on to revitalize the Disney animated feature with a string of hits: The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin — films that endeared a generation to musical storytelling with a distinctly gay and Jewish sensibility.
That sensibility is present in Little Shop too, with its gleeful deployment of Yiddish ("the Shivas are our most important funeral account," says Mr. Mushnik) and drag (a truly impressive series of second-act quick changes from Borle). And then there are the Urchins, a mystical trio of black girls who encapsulate the mythic qualities of America's golden age of pop music. Ari Groover, Salome Smith, and Joy Woods fulfill these roles with attitude and delicious three-part harmony while performing Ellenore Scott's ready-for-Ed Sullivan choreography. It's everything you would want in a great production of Little Shop.
Michael Mayer helms this hearty but not particularly revolutionary staging. Julian Crouch's decaying street scene set and Tom Broecker's Kennedy-era costumes look like the Little Shop we know and love. Bradley King lights the stage like a Vegas floor show in the Twilight Zone. Nicholas Mahon's impressive puppet design offers slight improvements on the original by Martin P. Robertson, but it's not a total overhaul — and if it ain't broke, why fix it?
The three leads offer distinct takes on well-known roles: Groff portrays a Seymour who never becomes comfortable in his own skin, as if all the world's a stage and he suffers from crippling stage fright. I particularly enjoyed his determination to make his Seymour rhythmically challenged, bopping just off the beat and performing the most goyishe Tevye dance ever during "Mushnik & Son."
From his first entrance as a slightly manic flower enthusiast, Borle proves that he was born for shows like this. Every choice evokes laughter, even when his character is behaving dreadfully.
I'll remember Blanchard's portrayal of Audrey most vividly: Styled like Marilyn Monroe on a bad day, her smoky and congested voice conveys her exhaustion. Her simple and sincere rendition of "Somewhere That's Green" floored me: She paints a beautiful picture of suburban bliss, but then waves it away in the final moments like the mirage it is. Blanchard commits fully to Audrey's impossible dreams, leading to a performance that is both hilarious and heartbreaking.
Old fans will love this revival of Little Shop of Horrors, and new ones are sure to walk out of the Westside Theatre every night. It ought to run for years.