by Brian Scott Lipton
That peculiar brand of theatrical magic that occurs when a perfect actor finds the perfect role, slipping it into like a custom-made dress, is something special to behold. Anyone who was in the Orpheum Theatre 33 years ago can attest to it, when little-known Ellen Greene transformed herself into self-deprecating, loveable loser Audrey, the Skid Row florist’s assistant, in Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s delightful musical adaptation of Roger Corman’s sci-fi film Little Shop of Horrors.
Amazingly, this alchemic reaction has survived the decades spectacularly, as was proven by City Center’s “Encores! Off-Center” two-day mounting of Little Shop, with Greene back in her signature role. Convincingly young-looking in her blonde wig and tight dress, she nabbed every nuance of the part, gaining laughs and breaking hearts, and could still instantly go back and forth between her kewpie-doll voice and a belting, miasma-filled sound that could put an “American Idol” contestant to shame. No wonder there were moments-after-moments of thunderous applause from her many fans, especially right after her peerless rendition of the gorgeous “Somewhere That’s Green.” At show’s end, she was greeted by a minutes-long standing ovation, totally deserved, that seemed to truly overwhelm her.
What was equally amazing about Greene’s performance is that it practically eclipsed the true casting coup of the production (if not the year): Oscar winner Jake Gyllenhaal as nerdy botanist Seymour. Questions abounded before the show. Could this handsome heartthrob make us forget his hunkiness? Yep! All it took was a bushy beard, some non-descript clothes, and first-rate acting. Even more important, could he sing, especially this reasonably demanding role? Yep again! Gyllenhaal has been hiding a gorgeous, musical-theater tenor, full of plaintiveness, and easily-handled such songs as “Suddenly, Seymour” and “Grow for Me.”
Director Dick Scanlan’s production, while scaled-down in all areas, never faltered in keeping the audience entertained. His supporting cast certainly deserved its shares of kudos: Joe Grifasi was nicely gruff as floral shop owner Mr. Mushnick; Eddie Cooper brought a big voice and bigger presence to the man-eating plant Audrey II, Tracy Nicole Chapman, Marva Hicks, and Ramona Keller as the show’s girl-group-esque Greek chorus were sassy and splendid; and, as expected, “Saturday Night Live” breakout star Taran Killam brought his chameleonic comic skills to a variety of male roles, and stopped the show briefly as Audrey’s sadistic boyfriend, Orin Scrivello, DDS, when singing Ashman and Menken’s hilarious “Be a Dentist.”
It would probably be harder than pulling teeth to convince this cast to do a longer run of the show, which makes the approximately 6,500 folks who snagged their tickets part of a very select crowd who will have memories to share for the next 33 years.
Little Shop of Horrors plays New York City Center, July 1-2. Visit www.nycitycenter.org for tickets and information.