What a joy to see the eternally delightful Little Shop of Horrors again. Sown by writer-lyricist Howard Ashman and composer Alan Menken from the seeds of the 1960 Roger Corman B-movie of the same name, the musical is still every bit as infectious, funny and unexpectedly poignant as when it first seduced theatergoers on a tiny downtown New York stage in 1982. Helping to erase the distance of those 33 years is the ageless Ellen Greene, reprising the role she originated of beat-up Skid Row denizen Audrey in this concert presentation. It’s no discredit to Jake Gyllenhaal, who throws himself into the role of hapless botanist Seymour Krelborn, that Greene’s history with the beloved show earns her the night’s most effusive entrance applause.
At the first of the production’s three sold-out performances, it appeared that Gyllenhaal wouldn’t have had it any other way. From his initial entrance, accompanied by a stumbling pratfall, he approaches the nebbishy role without an ounce of movie-star vanity, shuffling around with his hands in his pockets, his shoulders bowed and an air of permanent apology stamped on his bespectacled face. He even made a point of stepping aside during the curtain calls to give the emotionally overwhelmed Greene the final solo bow.
Gyllenhaal has already demonstrated his stage chops and his disinclination to dominate an ensemble in the play If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet, and in last season’s superb Broadway two-hander, Constellations. If this brief run is an experiment to see if he’s up to the challenge of doing a musical, he passes with flying colors. He may not have the vocal gusto of a Hugh Jackman, but his voice is sweet, expressive and tuneful — a natural extension of his endearingly nerdy characterization as the orphan taken in by crabby florist Mr. Mushnik (Joe Grifasi).
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When Gyllenhaal chimes in with his yearning for an escape from a life of poverty and drudgery in the soul-stirring ensemble number “Skid Row (Downtown),” there’s passion and sincerity in his singing. He nails the goofy comedy of “Grow For Me,” pleading with the exotic plant discovery that is his one shot at becoming somebody. And in the show’s soaring emotional crescendo, the glorious duet “Suddenly, Seymour,” his timid declaration of love for co-worker Audrey is a perfect complement to Greene’s exultant realization that someone decent might actually care for her. That number quite literally stopped the show and made the age gap between the performers disappear.
But then, there’s not a weak link in Menken’s score, which melds rock, pop, doo-wop, Motown and Broadway, and hasn’t aged a day. Likewise, the humor and heart in Ashman’s lyrics serve as vital reminders that musical theater lost an enormous talent when he died of AIDS in 1991 at age 40.
Their often-imitated stroke of genius on this collaboration was the use of three high school dropouts to serve as a girl-group Greek chorus, their very names — Chiffon, Crystal, Ronette — a loving homage to the sounds of the ’60s. The urchins are played here by Tracy Nicole Chapman, Marva Hicks and Ramona Keller, three stellar vocalists who ace arranger Robert Billig‘s melodious harmonies.
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Given the constraints of a concert staging with frugal design elements (chief among them a suitably tacky painted Skid Row backcloth), director Dick Scanlan‘s biggest challenge was how to show the Audrey II, the flesh-eating plant that first appears to Seymour during a total eclipse of the sun and then lures him into a Faustian pact to keep feeding it blood. In previous productions, as well as in the 1986 movie, that horticultural aberration was realized with elaborate puppetry. Here, Anwar Kareem, a child actor wearing green knee-high socks, carries on the small version in a terracotta pot. Eddie Cooper then takes his place in a green suit to wield the medium-sized plant, before donning a voluminous emerald fun-fur coat to play the giant talking carnivore. It’s a simple, low-tech solution that yielded a lot of laughs.
In the key supporting role of Audrey’s sadistic dentist boyfriend Orin Scrivello, D.D.S., current Saturday Night Live regular Taran Killam makes a terrific New York stage debut, doffing a leather biker’s jacket to reveal his orthodontist lab coat underneath. Killam is an assured singer and his facility with sketch comedy is put to good use as he transforms into a series of distinctive caricatures, from florist shop customers to reporters to big-shot entrepreneurs and magazine editors. Grifasi is more restrained but equally amusing as Mushnik, the sour opportunist willing to exploit Seymour’s newfound fame, until his moral qualms get in the way, spelling suppertime.
But the indisputable high point of this staging is Greene, whose Audrey is a creature of such piercing vulnerability and rock-bottom self-esteem that she breaks your heart. Greene’s voice may not have quite the elasticity it once possessed, but there’s no question that she will forever own this role. Her screwy line readings and battered sensuality; that untraceable accent, with a lisping delivery that combines chirps, squeaks and hoarse squawks; her cartoonish physicality; the unique phrasing of her breathy vocals, carrying us away on her beautiful daydream of blissful, bland suburbia in “Somewhere That’s Green” — it’s a performance to treasure, and the City Center audience wasn’t shy about conveying the thrill of witnessing it again.
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The show was last seen in New York in a 2003 production that seemed strangely out of place on Broadway, despite a fine cast and witty design elements. This is a scrappy pastiche musical that revels in its rough edges and doesn’t benefit from that revival’s shiny comic-strip veneer. Sticking with a bare-bones five-piece band, the current concert staging is truer to the material’s roots, even if the minimal rehearsal time could be discerned in some missed cues, fumbled scene transitions and mic issues. (The “Don’t Feed the Plants” finale, in particular, was a mess of inaudible vocals). Somehow, those glitches just added to the contagious spirit of the enterprise.
Broadway has become more receptive to modestly scaled, unconventional work than it once was; the success of the current Hedwig and the Angry Inch revival or this year’s Tony winner for best musical, Fun Home, demonstrates that edgy shows conceived for intimate off-Broadway spaces can thrive uptown with the right treatment. Should producers decide to take a gamble on another revival of Little Shop of Horrors that retains the show’s tawdry integrity, they might find a more hospitable climate than in 2003. This concert makes it quite clear that enraptured fans await.
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Ellen Greene, Taran Killam, Joe Grifasi, Tracy Nicole Chapman, Marva Hicks, Ramona Keller, Eddie Cooper, Anwar Kareem
Director: Dick Scanlan
Music: Alan Menken
Book and lyrics: Howard Ashman, based on the Roger Corman film, written by Charles Griffith
Set designer: Donyale Werle
Costume designer: Clint Ramos
Lighting designer: Mark Barton
Sound designer: Leon Rothenberg
Music direction: Chris Fenwick
Orchestrations: Robert Merkin
Vocal arrangements: Robert Billig
Choreographer: Patricia Wilcox
Presented by New York City Center Encores! Off-Center