If you’ve never seen Little Shop of Horrors, I envy you. One of the funniest, craziest, and most endearing of all off-Broadway musicals, this demented horror comedy filtered through Motown pop is playing to delirious crowds at the medium-sized Westside Theatre in midtown Manhattan, where it is being staged through January 19.
Based on a 1960 Roger Corman B-movie produced for $28,000 that featured a cameo by Jack Nicholson in one of his earliest roles, the musical debuted in 1982 and proved such a word-of-mouth sensation that its composer and lyricist, Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, went from downtown to the big time. They were invited to take their bouncy, playful tunes and effervescently funny lyrics to Disney, where they resurrected two dormant art forms — the screen musical and the animated feature — with The Little Mermaid (1989). Ashman died of AIDS at 40 in 1991, but Menken became something like the Richard Rodgers of his generation, winning eight Oscars for his Hollywood show tunes.
Little Shop must have seemed confoundingly weird and grotesque when it was written, but black comedy and campy pastiche have become such central elements of American entertainment since then that your average sophisticated 13-year-old will revel in it. What was once off-beat is now very much on-beat, and the show is now a beloved, frequently revived staple. This production has attracted such top-tier talents as Jonathan Groff (who played King George in Hamilton and Kristoff in Frozen), Christian Borle (who stole the show as Will Shakespeare in Something Rotten), and the director Michael Mayer, whose many Broadway productions include Burn This, American Idiot, and Spring Awakening. The coziness of the theater — I was in the sixth row yet within hat-tossing distance of the actors — would render tickets a bargain even if they were Broadway-priced, but they’re significantly less than that. (Last time I checked, orchestra seats could be had for $99).
Groff makes for a fine Seymour, the lovable schlimazel working in a Skid Row flower shop who has a crush on his coworker Audrey (Tammy Blanchard), a kindhearted bombshell who is stuck in a toxic relationship with a nitrous-oxide-addicted bully of a dentist (Borle). When Seymour pricks his finger on a thorn in the shop, he discovers that a wilting avocado-shaped flytrap nobody noticed before begins to thrive on a few drops of blood. He calls the plant (voiced by the booming bass soul singer Kingsley Leggs) Audrey II but initially has a much closer relationship with it than with the original Audrey, especially when it starts talking back to him and demanding more fresh blood. Audrey II becomes a media superstar as it grows from the size of a football to the size of a bear to the size of a Mini Cooper. But will it bleed Seymour dry?
If you’ve seen the show before, or the terrific 1986 Frank Oz film version, you’re aware of how ingenious the songs are, mimicking early-60s girl-group hits (the chorus members are called Ronnette, Crystal, and Chiffon) but with lyrics worthy of Lorenz Hart. “Skid Row (Downtown),” “Somewhere That’s Green,” “Grow for Me,” and the big ballad “Suddenly, Seymour” are all stage classics, and the cast realize them brilliantly, especially the three chorus girls (Ari Groover, Salome Smith, and Joy Woods). Blanchard doesn’t sing as well as any of them but tenderly performs “Somewhere That’s Green,” an ode to suburban bad taste (she dreams of a house enclosed by “a fence of real chain link”) that somehow doesn’t come across as mean or condescending. “There’s plastic on the furniture to keep it neat and clean,” she sings. If that’s what makes her happy, why not? “Dentist,” which Steve Martin knocked out of the park in the movie, remains one of the funniest show tunes ever, and though Borle is no Steve Martin, he is a lot of fun to watch as the obnoxious DDS and sadist. He’s even more amusing in the half-dozen minor roles he plays, frolicking on and off stage as, inter alia, a slick agent and the wife of a magazine editor.
Man-eating-plant jokes could wear thin if the show dragged on, but luckily this is one fast-moving show, building to a kooky apocalypse in just under two hours including an intermission. Bonkers off-Broadway musicals, thy name is Little Shop of Horrors.