By Samuel L. Leiter
Audrey II is back, as ravenous as ever. She, of course, is the carnivorous, ever-growing, deep-voiced plant in the hilariously horrific Off-Broadway rock musical, Little Shop of Horrors, the theatre’s answer to Jaws. Growling “Feed me!,” she’s alive and chomping in this meaty revival at the Westside Theatre, dining on red-blooded stars Jonathan Groff, Christian Borle, and Tammy Blanchard. With ticket buyers feeding lettuce salads to the box office, she should be chewing things up for quite a while.
You can practically taste the pleasure coursing through the audience’s veins during this first-rate revival of Howard Ashman (book and lyrics) and Alan Menken’s (music) cult classic, with excited squeals and applause at each familiar song and line. Audrey II, a magnificent series of ever-larger, green-tinted puppets, designed by Nicholas Mahon, controlled by multiple manipulators, and outstandingly voiced by Kingsley Leggs, hasn’t lost any of her bite. Just don’t nick yourself around her.
Theatre geeks are already crowding West 43rd Street nightly for a glimpse of Tony-nominated Groff, cast as Seymour Krelborn, the nerdy, flower-shop clerk; Tony-nominated Tammy Blanchard as Audrey, his hot but sweetly ditzy coworker; and Tony-winner Christian Borle, playing multiple quick-change roles in addition to Audrey’s abusive boyfriend, the sadistic dentist Orin Scrivello.
Thankfully, fans, like the woman next to me, who saw the original over 20 times, won’t be disappointed by director Michael Mayer’s faithful rendering, which eschews controversial innovations (apart from Audrey being redheaded, not blonde). All to the good, given the show’s faithful following in the wake of its 1982 hit premiere, inspired by a 1960 farcical horror movie, and its enormously prolific afterlife, including a beloved 1986 film.
In case you’ve never seen one of its gazillion professional or amateur revivals, let me note that Little Shop of Horrors is a sci-fi spoof set around 1960 and telling the Faustian story of Seymour, an orphan raised and employed by the aging Mushnik (Tom Alan Robbins) in the latter’s failing, Skid Row, flower shop. Hanging out nearby is a trio of Urchins, Ronette (Ari Groover), Crystal (Salome Smith), and Chiffon (Joy Woods), serving as an omnipresent chorus, and bopping along in numerous tuneful numbers in styles ranging from early 60s rock to do-wop to Motown.
The wilting flower business begins blossoming again after the goofy Seymour discovers that a small plant he finds following an eclipse keeps growing when it tastes blood. Seymour succumbs to the plant’s promise to answer all his material desires if he feeds its craw. One of his desires is his beautiful coworker, Audrey (after whom he’s named the plant). But, first, something must be done about the bullying, motorcycle jacket-wearing Orin.
Seymour goes to Orin’s blood-spattered office to shoot him but Orin, his head stuck in a mask filled with laughing gas, saves him the trouble. Orin is fed to Audrey II, whose insatiable appetite keeps demanding more. People get devoured, Audrey II keeps growing, Seymour gets famous, and, eventually, there’s hell to pay, with Audrey II and her progeny on the brink of gobbling up the world. (Plenty to read into here.)
Everything looks right in Julian Crouch’s set of Mushnik’s shop, its glass frontage easily slid into the wings to open up the space. Bradley King has lit it perfectly, and Tom Broecker has provided amusingly apt costumes
The handsome Groff, playing against type as the doofus Seymour, has just the right charm and voice (as in the sensational “Suddenly, Seymour”) to pull it off. (Gideon Glick fills in from November 5 to 17.) Blanchard, luscious in a bosom-busting black dress, provides Audrey with comedically poignant vulnerability, sensitively nailing her big song, “Somewhere That’s Green,” about her dream of suburban bliss.
It’s a shame that Borle’s scene-stealing Orin—a bizarre blend of Danny Zuko and the Fonz, popping his eyes deliriously with each hit of an inhaler’s nitrous oxide—vanishes midway through. The brilliant Borle excels in his bit parts, but drills at your funny bone most deeply as the maniacal Orin (highlighted in “Dentist”), with a laughing-gas scene literally to die for.
Tom Alan Robbins does all the right things as the kvetchy Mushnik, the Urchins sound spectacular, and Kingsley Leggs (aptly named for a monster who swallows limbs like they were Tic-Tacs) has the bass-baritone you expect to hear rocking Audrey II when she sings “Git It (Feed Me)” and “Suppertime.”
If you’re looking for a theatrical bouquet to brighten your day, you should stop by Mushnik’s flower shop at the Westside Theatre. It may not be on Skid Row but it should be blooming there for a long time. Just please don’t feed the plants.
Little Shop of Horrors at the Westside Theatre (407 West 43rd Street, between Ninth and Tenth Avenues). Two hours, one intermission. www.littleshopnyc.com
Photos: Emilio Madrid-Kuser