Review: Little Shop of Horrors Is Still the Best Musical Off-Broadway
Rob McClure, Lena Hall, Bryce Pinkham, and Brad Oscar star in the long-running off-Broadway revival.
The art of camp in the theater requires utter seriousness on the part of the performers. So it's fortunate that the open-ended off-Broadway revival of Little Shop of Horrors, at the Westside Theatre, has a cast of seriously committed (and seriously funny) actors breathing fresh life into their roles. As I've written before, Little Shop is the greatest off-Broadway musical ever — and performances like these make it even more delightful.
Directed by Michael Mayer with a light but steady hand, it's a living tribute to partnership of composer Alan Menken and librettist Howard Ashman (who influenced the musical sensibilities of generations in his too-short time on earth). Considering the proliferation of stock and amateur productions of Little Shop (which have spread across the globe more aggressively than the carnivorous plant species at the center of the tale), there's a fair chance that I don't need to explain the plot because you've seen the show before. You might have even been in it.
But just in case: Seymour (Rob McClure) and Audrey (Lena Hall) are assistants at the Skid Row flower shop owned by Mr. Mushnik (Brad Oscar). Business is lousy. But when Seymour discovers an exotic new plant, which he names Audrey II, customers flock to see it. Seymour hopes his success will impress Audrey I enough to convince her to leave her cruel dentist boyfriend, Orin (Bryce Pinkham). There's only one problem: The plant thrives on human blood — and Seymour only has so much to give. As Audrey II grows larger, he realizes that the only way to fulfill his dream is to kill.
"Would you like a Cadillac car? / Or a guest-shot on Jack Paar?/ How about a date with Hedy Lamarr," Audrey II sings, presaging Britney's "Work Bitch" in its vision of a glamorous lifestyle that can only be afforded by feeding the beast. It makes it that much more devilishly tempting that these words are intoned in the irresistibly sexy voice of Aaron Arnell Harrington. The song "Git It (Feed Me)," a duet with Seymour, has never sounded better.
Half of that can be attributed to McClure, who manages to maintain a dorky nasal quality in his voice while delivering remarkably soulful riffs. Vocally, it tells the story of a man with extraordinary potential who has never actually been given a chance to soar. And soar he does with Hall in a goosebump-inducing "Suddenly Seymour," every second of which is undergirded by real chemistry. There are moments when the emotions are so real that it's easy to forget we're watching a camp spoof of the horror genre.
Hall's rendition of "Somewhere That's Green" meets the modest dreams expressed in the lyrics with aching restraint — an emotional dam holding back a deluge of tears. Of all the principal cast members, Hall is the one most convincingly inhabiting a horror story — not around Audrey II, but her boyfriend. When she screams, "I'm sorry doctor," she braces for impact, genuine terror in her voice.
And why shouldn't she be terrified? As played by Pinkham, Orin is the type of dead-eyed predator who makes Jeffrey Dahmer look like a nice boy. We get the sense that he huffs nitrus oxide just so he can feel any emotions at all. Pinkham also gets to perform a coup de théâtre in the second act, executing the kind of quick-changes and wild character shifts that were left to Jefferson Mays when Pinkham played the straight man in A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder. Pinkham proves that he can do all that too.
The rest of the cast is wonderful: Oscar plays a cartoonishly anxious Mushnik (like McClure, Oscar is a refugee from the ill-fated Broadway musical Mrs. Doubtfire, and his considerable comedic skills are much better used here). Melissa Victor, Tiffany Renee Thompson, and Khadija Sankoh (who hilariously badgers the front row to hand over fake money that rains down during "The Meek Shall Inherit") make a mysterious and slightly menacing trio of witches…errr…urchins. And Weston Chandler Long plays a Skid Row derelict who is simultaneously handsome and disgusting.
Admirably, conductor Will Van Dyke maintains a chill tempo and solid dynamics, evoking a classic pop sound throughout. It feels refreshingly retro in a time when louder and faster seem to be the only direction for arrangers, as if they are ever prepared to fill a one-minute slot on The X Factor.
And, of course, the puppetry (performed by Jon Hoche, Weston Chandler Long, and Chelsea Turbin) remains top-notch, with Audrey II getting up close and personal with the audience.
Little Shop of Horrors remains the most reliably entertaining musical comedy off-Broadway. If you're thinking of returning (or catching the show for the very first time) this cast offers a golden opportunity.