I have never been happier to be on Skid Row. I don’t mean literally – a filthy street full of winos, weirdos and failing stores (which, honestly, could describe most of New York City right now) – but the one brought to blazing theatrical life by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman in the 1982 Off-Broadway smash Little Shop of Horrors, and now wonderfully recreated by director Michael Mayer in his pitch-perfect production at the Westside Theatre/Upstairs.
This extraordinarily smart musical, based on Roger Corman’s 1960 cult horror film, may well be the best argument that one doesn’t need a happy ending to leave the theater with a smile on your face. All you actually need is two hours of Menken’s ear-catching tunes, a ton of supremely clever lyrics (Ashman’s early demise from AIDS is one of the theater world’s greatest tragedies) and a host of beautifully drawn characters. Even the “Greek chorus” of three girl-group-like street urchins (wonderfully embodied by the sassy Ari Groover, Salome Smith and Joy Woods) not only enliven every scene they’re in, but make an impact by sheer force of their personalities.
Still, Little Shop lives and dies (pun intended) on investing in its central romantic relationship. Somewhat remarkably, a pair of eyeglasses, an unattractive shirt and, above all, a committed attitude prove to be all that the sublime, golden-throated Jonathan Groff needs to make us forget his leading-man looks and transform himself completely into the nerdy, clumsy amateur botanist Seymour Krelborn.
Toiling in the barely busy flower shop owned by his surrogate dad, the perpetually grumpy Mushnik (a very funny Tom Alan Robbins), Seymour is both treated as – and considers himself to be – worthless. Until he inadvertently creates the man-eating killer plant (eventually voiced by a sinuous Kingsley Leggs) that gains worldwide attention, but also forces him into a Faustian bargain.
However, it’s not really the fame or fortune that looms in Seymour’s immediate future that tempts him into committing murder and mayhem. Instead, what Seymour really wants is the seemingly unrequited love of self-loathing coworker Audrey (a vulnerable Tammy Blanchard, all too reminiscent of Judy Garland in her later years), momently trapped in a sadomasochistic relationship with the pain-obsessed dentist Orin Scrivello (a positively giddy Christian Borle, who also brilliantly and seamlessly embodies a host of minor characters).
In her own way, Blanchard has the toughest assignment here, trying to eradicate the memory of the role’s sui generis originator Ellen Greene (who also played Audrey in the 1986 film version and a brief 2015 production at City Center). She stays true to her characterization of Audrey the entire time, even vocally, which may be why her big numbers – “Somewhere That’s Green” and “Suddenly, Seymour” (opposite a sterling Groff) – don’t feel like the showstoppers you might otherwise expect. It’s a brave choice that worked well enough for me. More importantly, she and Groff have wonderful chemistry that makes you root for them.
Little Shop isn’t really meant to be a big show, and the production’s mostly minimalist approach (the spot-on costumes are by Tom Broecker, and the evocative set is by the great Julian Crouch) suits Mayer’s vision perfectly. Wisely, though, it seems more-than-enough expense has been spent in order to let puppet designer Nicholas Mahon bring the ever-hungry, ever-growing plant (named Audrey II) to thrilling, often terrifying life.
By the show’s chilling finale, you may decide to never feed your houseplants again. But who cares? This utterly delightful, crowd-pleasing show is much-needed food for a musical theater lover’s soul!