Little Shop of Horrors, the once and current Off Broadway marvel, announced in 1982 the arrival of two songwriters – Howard Ashman & Alan Menken – who’d soon expand musical theater boundaries to swallow Hollywood like so much plant food. The musical comes home again (you can’t isn’t in its vocabulary) with Michael Mayer’s delightful production featuring a dream trio of Jonathan Groff, Tammy Blanchard and Christian Borle.
In a staging that feels garden-fresh while honoring everything that made the musical such an invigorating blast nearly 40 years ago, this Little Shop sold out its limited run at the Westside Theatre (Upstairs) before performances began in September, prompting an eight-week extension through Jan. 19 that offers audiences a rare opportunity to see the show on the turf and in the manner that Ashman & Menken must surely have envisioned.
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Their musical, inspired by Roger Corman’s trippy, low-budget 1950 horror flick, has long since become an international theatrical staple, surviving a 1986 film that tilted with showboat casting and a reworked happy ending, and a somewhat bloated, mostly unmemorable 2003 Broadway revival. Little Shop, at longer last than anyone might have imagined, can now be enjoyed in a setting intimate and scrappy enough to at least hint at the sense of joyful discovery those early audiences must have felt the first time anyone heard a giant flytrap-styled puppet barking “Feed me, Seymour.”
Though recounting Little Shop‘s plot feels more than a bit unnecessary, here goes: Hapless Seymour, the browbeaten flower shop worker anxious to make himself visible to co-worker Audrey and hopeful of saving his Skid Row place of business, stumbles upon an exotic, previously unknown type of plant that thrives, to his secret horror, on human blood. When the bizarre little flora makes Seymour famous – and, in Seymour’s eyes, worthy of Audrey’s attention – he’ll do anything to keep it alive and growing, including tossing it the occasional human for lunch.
This time around, Seymour is played by Groff, the musical stage actor (Spring Awakening, Hamilton) turned TV star (Netflix’s Mindhunter, HBO’s Looking) who here reminds anyone who needs it just what combination of charisma and vocal chops brought him that initial success. Yes, he’s too handsome for a Mr. Cellophane like Seymour, but his boyish reticence makes up for it (along with a funny recurring bit that has one character after another lift Seymour’s oversize spectacles only to recoil in something like repugnance).
Tammy Blanchard has perhaps the greater challenge, stepping into a role that’s as closely associated with a single performer as just about anything the stage has tossed up since Horror‘s heyday. Ellen Greene, whose unforgettable characterization of Audrey – needy, vulnerable and what her fellow New Yawkers of the ’50s would call easy, all contained in a seemingly tiny, fragile being that unleashed a powerhouse vocal of hurt and hope on the standout songs “Suddenly, Seymour” and “Somewhere That’s Green” – played as big a part in the musical’s overwhelming success as any other single factor. She even landed the movie gig, going where so many Carol Channings couldn’t.
Blanchard doesn’t project the surface mousiness of Greene’s Audrey, but her sultry Jessica Rabbit manner seems just as wounded (literally) and delicate, providing the crucial element of desperation that moves Little Shop beyond camp pastiche. And yes, Audrey’s showstoppers are in capable hands here – they don’t disappoint.
As Audrey’s abusive boyfriend – the sadistic dentist whose cruelties must be conveyed as seriously as they are humorously – Borle (Peter and the Starcatcher, Something Rotten! and TV’s Smash and Younger, among others) cements his position as one of the New York stage’s most vibrant utility players. In addition to the nasty-tempered Orin Scrivello, DDS, Borle takes on various other, smaller roles here, from a persnickety flower shop customer to any number of sycophants who come crawling once Seymour and his mystery plant are of the cusp of fame and fortune. Borle nails every one.
All the other familiar Little Shop elements are here – the doo-wop girl group that serves as a neighborhood Greek chorus, the gruff but basically honest (too honest) shop owner, a set that neatly renders Skid Row with a mix of nostalgia and realism, and, most of all, an Audrey II that sprouts from hand puppet to a contraption that requires four people to work it (an offstage Kingsley Leggs provides the traditional jazz-man voice).
Mayer’s terrific staging (with fine assist by Ellenore Scott’s delightful choreography) doesn’t so much rework or reimagine Little Shop of Horrors as honor it with perfect care and feeding. Flush with their initial Off Broadway success, Ashman & Menken would soon go Hollywood, where they’d recreate the movie musical in their own image with Disney’s The Little Mermaid and, especially, Beauty and The Beast, their collaboration cut far too short by Ashman’s death from AIDS in 1991. It’s open for argument whether they ever topped this little story of horrors and heart, and all it took was a return to its Off Broadway soil to remind us why.