• October 17, 2019 | ,

    growing pains

    little shop of horrors at the westside theatre

    article by , illustrated by

    Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s 1982 stage musical Little Shop of Horrors, a clever and funny—if surface-level—dissection of American consumerism in the decades after World War II, generally works because of the man-eating plant. The 1960 Roger Corman B-movie on which Little Shop is based is a mannered farce; Ashman, lyricist and librettist, expanded it into a sci-fi tale about an alien species of flytrap that comes to Earth looking “essentially to / eat Cleveland / and Des Moines / and Peoria / and New York / and this theater.”  

    The alien plant is found by timid florist’s assistant Seymour Krelbourne, who names the creature Audrey II after his co-worker and paramour Audrey. Seymour rises to prominence because of his botanical discovery (even making it to the cover of Life). Unfortunately, Audrey II is the advance force of a floral extraterrestrial invasion and needs to be fertilized with human blood. Seymour, looking to stay on top of the world, eventually feeds his foster father and Audrey herself to the plant. Though Ashman’s writing is overtly silly, he’s playing with serious themes here. In fact, the dilemma is as old as 1001 Nights: The unsuspecting (and, eventually, craven) putz finds himself in control of forces greater than he and plots to use them to gain fortune and notoriety. 

    It’s the same territory Ashman broached, with more pleasant music also written by Menken, in the 1992 movie musical Aladdin. The threat, ultimately, is not the plants themselves but that enough “jerks” will fall for their get-rich-quick pitch and “feed them their fill.” 

    “They may offer you fortune and fame,” our heroes warn us in the disturbing finale, “Love and money and instant acclaim, / But whatever they offer you / Don’t feed the plants.” It might just as well be “don’t feed the bond traders.” It’s not the aliens who are coming to get us—it’s our own avarice. Done right, Little Shop should, on some level, inspire deep-seated moral terror. At minimum, its audience should find themselves avoiding begonias for at least a week.

    Michael Mayer’s new Off-Broadway production of Little Shop at the Westside Theatre is notable for a cast that includes Tony nominee Jonathan Groff as Seymour and Tony winner Christian Borle as sadistic dentist Orin Scrivello (among other roles). As such, it has inspired ravenous anticipation, impressive ticket sales, and a two-month extension to January 19. Its Audrey II puppet, designed by Nicholas Mahon and voiced by Kingsley Leggs, has been comparatively unheralded, for good reason. It’s well-puppeteered by a team of four, but it’s too smooth and decorative for my taste, more like a Muppet than a monster; though, to be fair, it’s tough to compete with Frank Oz’s masterful puppet from the 1986 film version and its quivering, articulated lips. Groff skillfully manipulates Audrey II’s half-grown version, a hand puppet with a disturbing number of gnashing teeth; its “mouth” snaps shut with a chilling thud that echoes through the 270-seat theater. In Act II, by contrast, Audrey II is larger, but torpid and unthreatening. The big lug (described in Ashman’s stage directions as “a cross between an avocado and a shark”) viciously chomps Audrey (Tammy Blanchard) across the stomach without leaving any visible marks. So much for eating this theater.

    So this Little Shop isn’t scary, and, as it turns out, isn’t particularly new, either. Risks are few and far between under Michael Mayer’s direction. On a utilitarian set designed by Julian Crouch, Mayer’s staging seems obligatory, a panacea marking time until Groff’s appearance, and rightly so. Groff, it turns out, gives a remarkable performance in an essentially unremarkable production. Though I was worried, after the 2015 City Center production starring Jake Gyllenhaal, that this traditionally nebbish role would swerve toward permanent matinee idol status, I’m glad to say that Groff’s deeply skilled performance does not rely at all on his beauty, his least interesting trait. His rage as Audrey II takes over his life is exquisitely colored, and his sense of twisted fun is palpable in the delicious “Feed Me (Git It),” a duet with Leggs. It’s a great musical moment in which Seymour, with Audrey II’s help, plans his first murder: “Stop and think it over, pal,” Groff practically shrieks, leaping up on a counter, “The guy sure looks like plant food to me.” Mayer, who directed Groff in his breakout role in the original production of Spring Awakening, seems surest-footed when working with his star. Since Blanchard’s vocal range is limited (tragically, given that Audrey’s two torch numbers, “Somewhere That’s Green” and “Suddenly, Seymour,” are the most powerful in the show) and the hammy Borle has entirely too much fun for his performance’s own good, one increasingly wishes Seymour and his big green buddy could be left alone onstage. Let’s face it—they belong together.

    On the occasion of this new, minimized, and intimate production, much has been made of the show’s downtown roots (it ran at the Orpheum Theater in the East Village for five years, from 1982 to 1987). But Little Shop isn’t a show specifically aligned with Off-Broadway such as The Fantasticks or Stomp, and it is certainly no more countercultural than its contemporary and spiritual predecessor Sweeney Todd. Therein lies the problem with this largely uninteresting approach to underserved material: So much, from Menken’s brilliant, genre-hopping score to Groff’s gorgeous lyric tenor, is crammed into so little space. Where’s the room to grow?