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Theatre in Review: Little Shop of Horrors (Westside Theatre)

Jonathan Groff, Tammy Blanchard. Photo: Emilio Madrid-Kuser.

Get ready: Audrey II is back, ready to devour a new generation of audiences. Little Shop of Horrors, the long-running 1980s hit -- which cemented the partnership of librettist Howard Ashman and composer Alan Menken, generated a hit film, and spawned a hundred failed imitations -- is looking uncommonly sprightly. In 1982, Ashman and Menken had the seemingly cuckoo idea of making a musical based on Roger Corman's 1960 Grade Z comedy-horror film, a footnote in cinematic history for having provided Jack Nicholson with an early role. The writer and composer transformed their so-bad-it's-good source material into a distinctively bloodthirsty farce that also deftly spoofs Eisenhower-era culture while delivering a surprisingly touching central romance. The good news is that everyone in Michael Mayer's production is on their best behavior, handling these bizarre goods with a welcome delicacy.

Unlike the many inane musical science fiction spoofs that followed in its wake -- forgotten titles like Zombies from the Beyond, Prom Queens Unchained, Starmites, and Wild Women of Planet Wongo -- Little Shop of Horrors succeeds on two levels. First is the piece's considerable wit and invention: From the opening notes, sung by a sassy girl-group Greek chorus -- the title song has one of Menken's most maddeningly catchy melodies -- the show is obviously some kind of nutty original ("Shing-a-ling/What a creepy thing/To be happenin'"). Ashman's lyrics are superbly economical: When Audrey, the bruised baby-doll heroine, laments her Skid Row existence, singing, "Downtown/Where the men are drips/Downtown/Where they rip your slips/Downtown/Where relationships are no go!," an entire character is summed up in eighteen elegantly rhymed words. The authors treat the brazenly ludicrous premise -- Seymour, a woebegone florist, accidentally nurtures Audrey II, a carnivorous variation on the Venus flytrap, dispatching most of the supporting cast to keep it alive -- for plenty of laughs, but they also allow room for the audience to feel something for the wildly stylized cartoon characters caught up in these gruesome happenings.

Under Mayer's direction, everyone onstage knows exactly how far he or she can go in pursuit of comic gold. As Seymour, Jonathan Groff, turned into a perfect schlub by costume designer Tom Broecker, is the klutziest of heroes, ever the grateful orphan for having been taken in, years earlier, by the exploitative florist, Mushnick. ("He took me out of the Skid Row Home for Boys when I was just a little tyke. Gave me a warm place to sleep, under the counter. Nice things to eat, like meatloaf and water. Floors to sweep and toilets to clean and every other Sunday off!") Groff also knows exactly how to pitch Seymour's google-eyed yearning for Audrey, the shop's saleslady, and his naïf's wonderment at raising a talking plant that demands a human diet. Tammy Blanchard, poured into skin-tight black dresses and decked out with leopard accessories along with-- more often than not -- a black eye, walks a fine line between hilarity and heartbreak as Audrey, who dreams of life in the suburbs ("Not fancy, like Levittown"), snuggling in bed with hubby and "watching Lucy on our big, enormous twelve-inch screen." Tommy Kurzman's hair and makeup design accentuates the actress' resemblance to Judy Garland, a big plus here; at certain points, Blanchard seems to be singing a little higher than her normal range, leading to some slightly whispery vocals, but she pulls out all the stops for "Suddenly Seymour," the riotous and surprisingly stirring duet in which Audrey and Seymour disclose their mutual passion.

As Orin, the sadistic dentist (with a thing for black leather) who knocks Audrey about, Christian Borle -- a performer who has been known to lead the charge over the top -- performs with total discipline: Orin's giggling death by nitrous oxide is one of the production's most blackly amusing moments. Wielding rusty, grisly-looking surgical tools, he has plenty of fun with the rock-and-roll anthem "Dentist" (he is, we are told, "the leader of the plaque"). Borle also turns a series of smaller roles into a rich gallery of comic caricatures. Tom Alan Robbins is fun as Mushnick, who is ready to kick Seymour onto the streets until Audrey II (voiced with equal parts fun and menace by Kingsley Leggs) brings a storm of notoriety. Providing their own brand of fun and vocal support are Ari Groover, Salome Smith, and Joy Woods as the cheeky street urchins who keep tabs on the increasingly violent action.

If the performance I attended is any indication, it's surprising how much the musical's humor, pitched directly at Baby Boomers, continues to resonate with audiences. This is, after all, a show where Audrey, dreaming of a better life, sings, "I cook like Betty Crocker and I look like Donna Reed." And this is surely the only musical in which Clare Boothe Luce makes a cameo appearance (played by Borle), dangling in Seymour's face the possibility of a Life Magazine cover. Then again, this is a show that puts a friendly face on mass murder and ends with the potential takeover of the planet by malevolent plants without losing its grinning humor and hey-bop-a-rebop tunefulness.

Perhaps having learned from the overly elaborate 2003 Broadway revival, the production design has exactly the right tacky grandeur. (If you saw the show at the Orpheum Theatre on Second Avenue, where it first opened, you exited the theatre into a real-life skid row, a lucky circumstance that has never been repeated.) Julian Crouch's seedy storefront set -- with its cracked walls and grimy tiles -- opens up to accommodate the constantly expanding series of puppets, designed by Nicholas Mahon, that represent Audrey II's takeover. Bradley King's lighting juggles saturated colors, spinning patterns, and audience effects to indicate how Seymour's life is spinning out of control. Jessica Paz's sound design is solid and generally clear, although the three urchins could work on their diction.

But, most of all, Mayer and company preserve the show's oddball double vision, in which slapstick murder and honest yearning keep company, with results that are -- if you can believe it - both charming and amusingly sordid. That's an odd pairing, I know, but Little Shop of Horrors somehow makes one think in terms of such opposites. Blame it on Audrey II. --David Barbour

(18 October 2019)

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