“Little Shop of Horrors” Off-Broadway does the impossible by somehow increasing the charm of the musical cult classic, thanks in part to its stars Jonathan Groff, Christian Borle and Tammy Blanchard.
The production, which opened on Oct. 17 at the Westside Theatre in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen, brings new energy to the 1982 cult classic horror-comedy musical. Director Michael Mayer, who won a Tony Award for his direction of “Spring Awakening” in 2006 reunites with Groff,Tony nominated for both “Hamilton” and “Spring Awakening,” to create a production filled with exceptional performances and production value.
When a flower shop assistant, Seymour — played by Groff — finds a strange and mysterious plant during a total eclipse of the sun, it grabs the attention of everyone in the city, including his boss Mr. Mushnik, played by Stephen Berger in the performance I attended, and his co-worker/crush Audrey, played by Blanchard. The plant, which Seymour names Audrey II, turns out to have a certain appetite for human meat. The story follows Seymour through his struggles with love, greed and exploitation as he attempts to better his life with the discovery of the plant that ends up changing the world.
The musical is based on the 1960 film “The Little Shop of Horrors,” written by Charles B. Griffith and directed by Roger Corman.
The score, created by beloved Disney duo Howard Ashman (lyrics and book) and Alan Menken (music), is an energetic 1960’s pop-rock style mixed with musical theatre, doo-wop and Motown sound that makes the audience bop their heads during every number. Warning: All the music will be stuck in your head after the show.
Groff, who also stars in Netflix’s “Mindhunter,” leads the production with immaculate talent. His voice and acting are a perfect match for the meek and innocent Seymour, whose actions transform him throughout the show. His voice, beautiful and tender, is a highlight of most of the music in the show. His acting matches and perhaps surpasses that of the 1986 musical film Seymour, Rick Moranis, whose performance helped mold the film into the cult classic it is today.
Blanchard, who portrayed a young Judy Garland in the film “Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows,” portrays Audrey, who’s abused and broken by her boyfriend Orin Scrivello, D.D.S. played by Borle and dreams of a quiet life with Seymour. In the 1986 musical film version, this role is played by original cast member Ellen Greene, who last performed the iconic role on stage in the “Encores” concert in 2015 at the age of 64.
Blanchard sings in a broken voice that fits well into the emotions of her broken character. Audrey’s standout performances in her solo “Somewhere That’s Green” and her duet with Seymour in “Suddenly Seymour” are soulful and beautiful. Blanchard’s performance creates a strong empathy for Audrey throughout the show. Her chemistry with Groff escalates the relationship of the characters.
Borle, a two time Tony winner for “Something Rotten” and “Peter and the Starcatcher,” plays Scrivello, the sadistic dentist and abusive, laughing gas addicted boyfriend of Audrey. His voice lends well to his character’s signature song “Dentist,” originally sung in the 1986 musical film by Steve Martin, who portrayed Scrivello.
Borle’s comedic timing is impeccable in this production, as it is in all the productions he is in (he isn’t a two-time Tony winner for nothing). Scrivello’s bad boy attitude and style are both hilarious and disturbing; Borle is presented with the challenge of delivering some very heavy material as Audrey’s abuser while also keeping the audience in good spirits. Borle also portrays several smaller ensemble roles throughout the show, which all have unique speech, movement and personalities throughout the show.
The bellowing voice of Audrey II is portrayed by Kingsley Leggs, who shakes the small theater with his haunting bass vocals. Audrey II acts as the devil on Seymour’s shoulder; there’s a certain seduction in Leggs’s voice that commands Seymour throughout the show.
Eric Wright and Teddy Yudain, bring Nicholas Mahon’s Audrey II puppets to life. In combination with Leggs, the character is given life; without all three of them working perfectly together, Audrey II would not have been as brilliant as it is in this production.
Ari Groover, Salome Smith and Joy Woods portray the street urchins, who act as a Greek chorus and ensemble vocals throughout the show. Each urchin gets their own solo during the show, which highlights their amazing vocals, as well as brings the background vocals and doo-wop style to the show’s score.
Berger fits the mold of the cynical flower shop owner Mr. Mushnik perfectly, bringing a voice and acting ability that fits in naturally as an understudy. In this production, Mr. Mushnik is usually played by Tom Alan Robbins.
Julian Crouch’s set transforms the intimate theater to the immersive dirty slums of urban Skid-Row, while the lighting by Bradley King creates eerie horror vibes or triumphant spectacle depending on the mood of the show, utilizing green and red lighting. The band gives a great musical performance, but can sometimes drown out some of the performers throughout the show.
“Little Shop of Horrors” at the Westside Theatre is a delightfully entertaining show with memorable performers in an intimate, immersive space. The production runs in an extended limited engagement until Jan. 19, 2020. There isn’t a bad seat in this 270-seat theater; so to lovers of musicals, to those who find their fix in freaky cult films and to those looking for a great night at the theatre, if you can make it out to Manhattan, this “Little Shop of Horrors” production is bound to entertain all audiences.