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Tuesday – Sunday through January 19, $69-$179
Little Shop of Horrors is back where it belongs, off Broadway, in Michael Mayer’s exhilarating adaptation continuing at the Westside Theatre through January 19. The 1982 satire of “science fiction, ‘B’ movies, musical comedy itself, and even the Faust legend,” as noted by book writer, lyricist, and original director Howard Ashman, debuted in 1982 at the WPA Theatre and soon moved to the Orpheum in the East Village, where it ran for more than five years. A smash hit that became one of the most-produced shows around the country, it was based on Roger Corman’s 1960 black-and-white comedy about a milquetoast floral assistant on Skid Row who is raising a rather odd plant. It was turned into a successful film by Frank Oz in 1986 and made it to Broadway — something Ashman, who died of AIDS complications in 1991 at the age of forty, was against — in 2003. But Mayer returns it to its roots (I know that phrase is part of the ad campaign, but it’s a darn good one), playing to sold-out houses in the Westside Theatre’s 270-seat upstairs space even though the star-studded musical easily could have done big business on the Great White Way.
Jonathan Groff is sweetly endearing as Seymour Krelborn, a schlemiel working in a failing flower shop on Skid Row owned by the gruff Mr. Mushnik (Tom Alan Robbins), who has raised the orphan Seymour since he was a child, although not with much love. Seymour pines for his coworker, Audrey (Tammy Blanchard), a squeaky redheaded bombshell who has an abusive boyfriend, black-leather-jacketed sadistic dentist Orin Scrivello (Christian Borle). The trio of Ronnette (Ari Groover), Crystal (Salome Smith), and Chiffon (Joy Woods) — yes, they are named for three popular 1960s girl groups, and they sing in that style — serve as a kind of Greek chorus, participating in some of the action as they hang out on a pair of grimy stoops. Mushnik is about to shut down the shop when a strange, unidentifiable plant that Seymour is nursing, which he calls Audrey Two (or Twoey), quickly becomes a local sensation; the store starts doing extremely well, and Seymour and Audrey's drab existence is reinvigorated. The only problem is that Audrey Two, which is growing at an absurd rate, needs special food to survive: human blood. “Feed me,” Audrey Two, voiced by Kingsley Leggs, demands, not sounding at all like a destitute denizen of Skid Row.
A riotous take on movies about monsters, aliens, and serial killers in addition to romantic comedies, Little Shop of Horrors is also a trenchant look at class and capitalism in post-depression America. The play is set on Skid Row, where bums sprawl out next to garbage cans and kids never finish school. When Mushnik asks the three girls how they intend to better themselves, they sing about their lack of hope: “You go downtown / Where the folks are broke / You go downtown / Where your life’s a joke / You go downtown / When you buy your token, you go — / Home to Skid Row . . . / Where the cabs don’t stop . . . / Where the food is slop . . . / Where the hop-heads flop in the snow!” It’s a far cry from the downtown lovingly portrayed by Petula Clark in 1965 (“The lights are much brighter there / You can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares . . . / Downtown, everything’s waiting for you.”)
Audrey desperately wants a traditional suburban life where she’s not poor and beaten down, physically and psychologically. “A matchbox of our own / A fence of real chain link / A grill out on the patio / Disposal in the sink,” she sings. “I’m his December bride / He’s father, he knows best / Our kids play Howdy Doody / As the sun sets in the West / A picture out of Better Homes / and Gardens magazine / Far from Skid Row / I dream we’ll go / Somewhere that’s . . . / Green.” It’s no coincidence that Audrey Two is green, offering them all a way out, although not the one they pray for.
Two-time Tony nominee and Obie winner Groff (Spring Awakening, Hamilton) and Emmy winner and two-time Tony nominee Blanchard (Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows, Gypsy) are adorable in roles originated onstage by Lee Wilkoff and Ellen Greene and onscreen by Rick Moranis and Greene. (The always terrific Gideon Glick will step in as Seymour from November 5 to 17.) It might not appear that Seymour and Audrey belong together at first, but then comes the beloved “Suddenly Seymour” and their love blossoms. Two-time Tony winner Borle (Peter and the Starcatcher, Something Rotten!) plays Orin and a bunch of other smaller roles with ketchup, mustard, and relish, devouring them with a sly wit, including several in just a few minutes, featuring hysterical, super-fast costume changes (the duds are by Tom Broecker) as Seymour and Audrey Two go viral the old-fashioned way, eons before social media and the 24/7 news cycle.
Tony winner Mayer (Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Spring Awakening) maintains a sweet intimacy, even as Audrey Two threatens to overtake Julian Crouch’s period set and the small theater itself. Ellenore Scott adds fun choreography harking back to 1960s pop; the puppet design is by Nicholas Mahon based on Martin P. Robinson’s original. The score, performed by an offstage four-piece band led by conductor and keyboardist Will Van Dyke, is chock full of nuggets, from the impossibly catchy title song and previously mentioned tunes to “Dentist” and “Da-Doo,” many of which will have you singing and dancing down the street afterward, which doesn’t happen often nowadays. “There will be a temptation to play it for camp and low-comedy,” Ashman, who also collaborated with Menken on Kurt Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater and the Disney animated films The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, explains in his author’s note in the script, adding, “When Little Shop of Horrors is at its most honest, it is also at its funniest and most enjoyable.” It’s hard to get rid of all the camp, but this Shop is nothing if not honest, funny, and most enjoyable.