There aren’t that many notable horror musicals, and some of them are, well, horrible. Adapted from Roger Corman’s comical creepy cheapie from 1960, Little Shop of Horrors is the green standard among them, which propelled the tunesmith team of Alan Menken (music) and Howard Ashman (book and lyrics) from the show’s down-and-out Skid Row to greater glory at Disney (without their hummable contributions to The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin there woud have been no animated musical renaissance). It was however a bit wilted at the movies (the starry 1986 film version retained its beating heart, the wistful Ellen Greene, yet made too fancy a floral arrangement from the material) and no matter how big he got Audrey II, the horror himself, couldn’t quite fill the house in the show’s Broadway debut in 2003.
Happily the show is back where it belongs, and seeing it in the cozy Westside Theatre took me back to its Off Broadway engagement at the Orpheum, in the early 80s. I vividly recall Audrey II’s tendrils descending upon me and my family as the show ended, a funny, William Castle-like shock effect for the ages. We were however hooked from the outset, from the doo wop rhythm of the “Greek chorus” prologue (few musicals get off to a faster start) to highlights like “Skid Row,” “Suddenly, Seymour” and Greene’s “I Want” haymaker, the plaintive “Somewhere That’s Green.” Backing up a classic lineup of songs was Ashman’s book, which amplifies both the grisly comedy and Faustian tragedy of the material, as Seymour, a nebbishy floral assistant, cultivates a lethal plant of unknown origin that requires blood to survive, and thrive into local celebrity. Love is also in bloom, as Seymour swoons for his colleague, the woebegone but ever-hopeful Audrey…but her namesake ensures there’s no bed of roses awaiting the would-be lovers. “Feed me, Seymour…!”
Director Michael Mayer has laid out a feast, with scenic designer Julian Crouch replicating Skid Row in all its tacky glory (the “urchin” ladies who narrate in song are all outfitted with Famous Monsters of Filmland magazines, a touch I never get too old for) and Nicholas Mahon and Monkey Boy Productions handling the delightful puppetry (performer Kingsley Leggs sells the illusion with his powerhouse vocals). The only miscalculation is Jessica Paz’s overemphatic sound design, which tends to swallow the lyrics in the small space.
Little Shop doesn’t require star presences but this production has them, and they are for the most part effectively deployed. Taking a break from the angst-ridden detection of Netflix’s Mindhunter two-time Tony nominee Jonathan Groff is a winning Seymour, a good foil for his avaricious boss Mushnik (Tom Alan Robbins) and in strong voice. To Kill a Mockingbird co-star Gideon Glick, who will replace him for a couple of weeks, is a more natural nebbish, but online criticism of the handsome Groff not being hapless enough for the role is odd; it’s called “acting,” and he acts the pratfalling short-faller as well as, say, Ryan O’Neal in What’s Up, Doc? Why Tammy Blanchard hasn’t taken her Emmy-winning portrayal of Judy Garland on the road stumps me (she’s continued to age into the very likeness) but that does offer an interesting visual and vocal contrast to Greene. Jokes about Audrey’s abuse at the hands of her boyfriend will for some be on the verge of cultural cancellation; still, she invests the character with ample quantities of frazzled sympathy and warmth.
Two-time Tony winner Christian Borle earns his stripes as the abusive biker dentist Orin, but showboats too much in other smaller roles. Little Shop of Horrors doesn’t need an Audrey III, IV, or V. The two leads and/or Audrey II taking center stage, putting across those terrific songs, is all the conspicuous consumption this production needs.