Jonathan Groff in ‘Little Shop of Horrors.’ (Photo: Emilio Madrid Kuser)
Be careful what you wish for, Seymour. And that goes for cash-strapped audiences, too, at the Westside Theatre/Upstairs, where the highly anticipated Off-Broadway revival of Little Shop of Horrors opened last night with an A-list cast. The production’s ticket prices soar up to $179 for a perfectly polished production of the Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s 1982 cult-movie inspired musical. Is it worth it? As Audrey Two would say, “Feed me!”
Most are familiar with the plot, inspired by the 1960 film, The Little Shop of Horrors. In the musical adaptation, Seymour (Jonathan Groff, Hamilton), a nebbish flower shop clerk, cultivates a unique plant with a penchant for human blood. Shop owner Mr. Mushnik (Tom Alan Robbins, Head Over Heels) is happy for the business, as is Seymour’s work crush, Audrey (Tammy Blanchard), who’s grateful for the distraction from her abusive dentist boyfriend, Orin (Christian Borle, Falsettos, Something Rotten!).
Under Michael Mayer’s swift direction and sharp choreography by Ellenore Scott for the trio of street urchins, Ronnette (Ari Groover), Crystal (Salome Smith), and Chiffon (Joy Woods), who act like a sassy Greek chorus, this Little Shop feels big without becoming bombastic.
Ashman, in the script’s author note, states that “I can vouch for the fact that when Little Shop is at its most honest, it is also its funniest and most enjoyable.” In its current incarnation, much of this can be attributed to Groff’s performance, which delicately balances gravitas and physical humor. He deftly handles Nicholas Mahon’s puppet design, as Audrey II grows from a hand-held house plant into a colorfully carnivorous monster. And while his chemistry with Ballard isn’t heart-palpitating, its nurturing quality is enough to tug at the heartstrings for the pair’s famous Act II ballad, “Suddenly, Seymour.”
Blanchard, on the other hand, is tasked with making sense of Audrey for a 21st-century audience, in which “Me Too” is part of the common vernacular. Poured into a skintight and busty black dress designed by Tom Broecker, her languid movement and vocal inflection hang like a smoggy haze over Skid Row. Blanchard’s Audrey is a woman both mentally and physically beaten down, and one gets the sense that Audrey has found normalcy in abuse.
Borle, too, must strike a delicate balance between Orin’s sadistic tendencies and egotistical mansplaining that still pervade more than 35 years since Little Shop of Horrors first opened. There’s something sinisterly joyful watching him accidentally gas mask himself to death. But the actor’s real gift to the production is his chameleon-like transformation into various cameo appearances as Seymour ascends the ladder of success.
The urchins, offering reference to The Ronettes, The Shirelles and other 60s girl groups, provide a greater sense of agency through this production’s fresh lens, though a future free of gender and racial bias beyond Skid Row seems as distant as Audrey’s dreams for a life “Somewhere That’s Green.”
The musical’s societal commentary of our culture’s age-old obsession with fame, fortune, success, and other Venus Flytrappings that life dangles is neatly wrapped like a dozen long-stem roses. But like any clipped bouquet, the blossoms will eventually wilt, their petals falling, crushed into the ground by passers-by unaware of their past beauty. Little Shop of Horrors is a testament to Ashman and Menken’s keen understanding and empathy for the marginalized. But if you’re an underdog, they suggest, be prepared for consequences to accompany those dreams. Otherwise, don’t feed the plants.
Little Shop of Horrors
407 West 43rd Street, NYC
Through January 19, 2020
Matthew Wexler is The Broadway Blog’s editor. His culture writing has appeared in Dramatics Magazine and on TDF Stages and ShowTickets.com. Matthew is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a past fellowship recipient from The Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Critics Institute. Read more of his work at wexlerwrites.com.