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A CurtainUp Review
Little Shop of Horrors
By Dan Rubins
I am happy to report from the Westside Theater, then, where a new off-Broadway revival (the show’s initial 1982 run was off-Broadway, too) that Little Shop of Horrors is much more than that. Starring Hamilton’s King George, Jonathan Groff (also of Disney’s Frozen and Netflix’s Mindhunter ), and directed by Michael Mayer (who launched Groff’s career with Spring Awakening in 2006), this production’s limited run in a 270-seat theater glowed with must-see potential from the day it was announced . And, accompanied by a crackerjack design team (including Julian Crouch’s set and Bradley King’s colorful lighting) and an acting ensemble with razor-sharp comedic precision, Mayer convincingly sells Little Shop as a near-perfect piece of musical theater writing.
Perfect doesn’t necessarily mean superior or all-encompassing — there’s only so much transcendent beauty to be tapped from this tale of a plant that feeds on human flesh — but, in their first successful collaboration, composer Alan Menken and book-writer/lyricist Howard Ashman made exactly the show they set out to make. It’s a wisely-paced piece — and Mayer knows exactly how to keep it moving — that takes time for the quieter moments while still building suspense on its gory foundation. And Ashman’s smart, spoofy book turns out to be a whole lot funnier than I remembered it in the voices of young teenagers.
Perfect also doesn’t mean foolproof. In lesser hands, the show’s parodic intentions — of the sci-fi genre and of 80s music and styles — could turn to sour camp or unmoored silliness. Mayer and his team smoothly thread the needle, managing to make each moment vibrate on two levels at once. Take “Suddenly, Seymour,” for example, the duet that Seymour and his beloved co-worker Audrey (Tammy Blanchard, winningly calling to mind the brassy hoarseness of Natasha Lyonne set to music) share at the top of the second act. As a piece of songwriting outside of the context of the show, it’s okay, tuneful though somewhat bland.
But “Suddenly Seymour” is a ballad meant to send up similar belted anthems of the time, those that were overly impassioned and ill-fitting of the downtrodden, schlubby duo singing it in the show (“Here, take my Kleenex,” Seymour offers in the first verse). At the same time, the moment of “Suddenly Seymour” is totally real for the characters — though there’s melodrama in the air, there’s nothing outsized or unproportional about Audrey’s admission partway through the song that “Nobody ever treated me kindly/Daddy left early/Mama was poor.” And it’s that impossibly seamless juxtaposition — the knowing parody entirely melded with the awareness of two honest people finding each other — that make the moment greater than the sum of its parts.
Groff’s Seymour, also, is utterly endearing. Raised by the owner of Mushnik’s Flower Shop, Seymour has developed an obsession with strange and unusual plants. Seymour discovers a new breed of flytrap, which he names Audrey II after his crush and flower shop colleague, and which, to his horror, will only accept human blood as nourishment. Soon enough, the increasingly gigantic Audrey II starts talking — and singing (providing her voice at the reviewed performance was the thrilling Salome Smith) — and she’s demanding more flesh than Seymour can procure without turning to murder.
Groff sweetly guides the audience through Seymour’s fame- and Audrey-fueled rise and fall. There’s something aching in Groff’s innocent tenor when he expresses the self-loathing and insecurity that dwells in the show’s subtly fragile heart: “Without my plant,” Seymour worries, “she might not love me anymore.” Blanchard’s battered, tenacious Audrey is a match for Seymour’s aching anxiety, her own conviction that she does not deserve happiness finding relief in Seymour’s love.
But Little Shop spends little time being overtly subtly fragile, and Groff also gets to show off some wildly un-Seymour-like dance moves when swept up into a raucous tango with Mr. Mushnik (the terrifically funny Tom Alan Robbins) or a doo-wop number with the three street urchins who offer narration on the acton and constant back-up singing. All three of those performers — Ari Groover, Joy Woods, and Kris Roberts — raise the roof with bold vocals and fiery individuality. (Ellenore Scott provides the exuberant choreography.)
As for the puppet herself, Audrey II is a wicked work of anthropomorphic mastery. Designed by Nicholas Mahon and operated by Eric Wright and Teddy Yudain throughout multiple stages of botanical growth, she smacks her lips and waggles her tongue with attitude. She’s a faceless puppet with an abundance of character and an ability to say exactly what she wants without saying a word. And in that scene gone so awry back in my summer camp production, when Audrey II finally wraps her tendrils around her namesake here, it’s fairly terrifying.
And for my personal vindication, there’s delicious, hammy work from Christian Borle as Customer #1 — really the only customer in the actual show, it turns out — before Borle, a two-time Tony winner for Peter and the Starcatcher and Something Rotten quick-changes into Audrey’s abusive, sadistic dentist boyfriend who nuttily flaunts his laughing gas addiction.
Turns out I could have stolen the show — or at least the scene — all along: as Ashman’s lyrics say, “Don’t it go to show ya never know?”
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Little Shop of Horrors
Music by Alan Menken
Book and Lyrics by Howard Ashman
Directed by Michael Mayer
Cast: Jonathan Groff, Tammy Blanchard, Christian Borle, Tom Alan Robbins, Kingsley Legs, Ari Groover, Salome Smith, and Joy Woods
Choreograpy by Ellenore Scott
Scenic Design: Julia Crouch
Costume Design: Bradley King
Lighting Design: Tom Broecker
Sound Design: Jessica Paz
Music Supervisor/Arrangements/Orchestrations: Will Van Dyke
Running Time: 2 hours with an intermission
Westside Theatre Upstairs, 407 West 43rd Street
From 9/17/19; opening 10/17/19; closing 1/19/20
Tuesdays at 7; Wednesdays at 2 and 8; Thursdays at 7; Fridays at 8; Saturdays at 2 and 8; and Sundays at 3
Reviewed by Dan Rubins at 11/2 performance
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