Sunday, December 18, 2022

Little Shop of Horrors, Still Off-Broadway

Roger Corman is a legend, but there were times when he was penny-wise and pound-foolish. For instance, he never went to the expense of copyrighting his 1960 cult favorite, Little Shop of Horrors, which went on to inspire a hit Off-Broadway musical, Frank Oz’s 1986 film adaptation, a short-lived cartoon series, and a 2003 proper Broadway production. Currently, the Westside Theatre has a new Off-Broadway revival running (resumed from its Covid hiatus), which is suitably rambunctious for fans of the iconic story, in all its incarnations.

It is a tale Shakespeare could have told. Boy meets girl. Boy meets plant. Plant eats everyone. Seymour Krelborn carries a torch for Audrey Fulquard, his co-worker at Gravis Mushnick’s Skid Row florist shop. Unfortunately, she is trapped in an abusive relationship with the sadistic biker dentist, Dr. Orin Scrivello DDS. Mushnick’s is on the brink of closure, but the exotic cutting Krelborn nurtured into a mutant-Venus flytrap-like botanical wonder creates a sudden media sensation, reversing Mushnick’s fortunes. The problem is the unruly plant Krelborn named Audrey II has an unquenchable thirst for blood. No longer satisfied with the drippings from his pricked fingers, Audrey II demands a full victim—and she is not shy about suggesting candidates.

This is a familiar story for fans of B-movies and 1980s musicals, but the ensemble throws themselves into it with admirable energy. Director Michael Mayer makes the Westside stage feel as big as any Broadway theater. He slyly leans into the horrifying aspects of Dr. Scrivello’s office, without actually getting explicit. The production also has a clever retro way of acknowledging the conductor-keyboardist, who also creates a surprisingly big sound.

This is a
Little Shop that celebrates the eccentricities of the show’s original Corman source material, but Matt Doyle and Lena Hall are both sweet and endearing as Seymour Audrey I. Andrew Call gets a lot of laughs as Dr. Scrivello and in several other colorful smaller roles. Fans of the 1960 riginal might miss Dick Miller’s Burson Fouch, the flower-eating customer and the masochistic dental patient played by Jack Nicholson (and Bill Murray in the 1986 film), but Call’s crazy “cameos” help compensate.

Yet, the real star of the show is the distinctive puppetry. It is some of the best puppet work I’ve seen in a New York dramatic show since Broadway’s
King Kong. It does not have the same overwhelming scale, but for a theater of this size, it is quite impressive.

At this point,
Little Shop of Horrors is not just a film or a show, it is an American tradition (and a rare instance of Roger Corman leaving money on the table). Alan Menken & Howard Ashman’s tunes still hold up, like the early company number “Skid Row (Downtown),” which is kind of a flag-waver, but also holds great emotional resonance. Companies will still be staging Little Shop decades from now, but this is a great production to see, because it is so inventively conceived for its space. Highly recommended, Little Shop of Horrors is now playing at the Westside Theatre.