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Little Shop of Horrors (10/02/2003 - 08/22/2004)


 

AP: "Man-Eating Plant is Back, Now on Broadway"

Some 20 years after its initial off-Broadway triumph, can a blood-lusting, man-eating plant find happiness in the big leagues of Broadway?

Yes indeed, if the leafy creature happens to be Audrey II in "Little Shop of Horrors," one of the more indestructible musicals of the 1980s.

This spiffy revival, which opened Thursday, has been visually enhanced to fill the stage of the Virginia Theatre, one of Broadway's least hospitable theaters. In the process, Audrey II has grown to be quite a behemoth -and a little scarier.

Yet outside of those enlargements, don't expect any startling revisions in director Jerry Zaks' musical, which he resurrected and mostly recast after a Florida tryout floundered earlier this year.

"Little Shop" has always been a small show, a good-natured yet cheeky concoction that exudes a brash buoyancy - a necessary ingredient for any musical comedy worth its sass.

Creators Howard Ashman (book and lyrics) and Alan Menken (music) didn't take their source material - Roger Corman's classic 1960 film too seriously, and that irreverence paid off. Shades of "Hairspray" (which "Little Shop" proceeded by two decades), their pop score bubbles merrily; it manages to send up and pay homage to the music of an era when father knew best and mom was a cross between Betty Crocker and Donna Reed.

For those who came in late, our tale is set in a failing Skid Row flower shop, owned by the schlumpy Mr. Mushnik. Its hero is the sad-sack orphan Seymour, a shop employee who cultivates an unusual plant that happens to thrive on human flesh.

Seymour pines for Mushnik's ditsy salesgirl, Audrey, the namesake for his peculiar piece of flora. Audrey is a blond bombshell of the Marilyn Monroe variety, a woman who has a weakness for men who treat her wrong, particularly a masochistic, motorcycle-riding dentist.

Audrey II grows. Boy, does it, thanks to the outsized, outrageous new designs by Martin P. Robinson. The plant, which also acquires a voice (a booming Michael Leon-Wooley), is nourished first by drops of blood from Seymour's bandage-covered fingers and later from victims provided by the hapless Seymour. His Faustian bargain with the plant ensures not only success for the shop but hope for his relationship with Audrey.

Zaks has cast the show with care.

Hunter Foster possesses a delightful Howdy Doody earnestness that gives Seymour a likability that pushes beyond the character's comic-strip confines. Plus, Foster (who last starred on Broadway in "Urinetown") is a more than efficient song-and-dance man.

Then there's Kerry Butler who has the unenviable job of slipping into the tight blouses and even tighter pedal pushers once worn by the incomparable Ellen Greene in the original production. If not as innately funny as Greene, Butler does just fine, particularly during a wistful rendition of Audrey's big solo "Somewhere That's Green."

As Mushnik, Rob Bartlett seems to be channeling Zero Mostel (particularly Mostel playing Tevye in "Fiddler on the Roof'), but the choice pays off.

The hardest working actor on stage - and the one with the quickest costume changes - is Douglas Sills since he portrays a parade of characters, including the demented dentist. They are all done with hammy expertise.

The three ladies of the chorus - DeQuina Moore, Trisha Jeffrey and Carla J. Hargrove - epitomize the girl groups of the early '60s, and choreographer Kathleen Marshall has given them the grooviest of moves.

Designer Scott Pask's looming tenements have a menacing quality, an otherworldly feel just right for this spooky story.

If the production is tinged with a little melancholy for theater buffs, that's because the show is a sobering reminder that Ashman died of AIDS in 1991. After "Little Shop," he and Menken collaborated on Disney animated films, giving us at least one classic, "Beauty and the Beast," which eventually found its way to Broadway in a lavish stage version.

Still, those Disney movies and "Little Shop" provide a potent legacy, not to mention allowing audiences to again get reacquainted with that formidable stage presence known as Audrey II.


AP
10/02/2003

New York Daily News: "Overgrown & overblown"

Musicals, once regarded as America's greatest contribution to world theater, have become a species of cartoon.

An open-minded person like myself has no objection to this development, but it requires a different set of guidelines.

In an old-fashioned musical, you could write about the characters or the music or the lyrics. In a cartoon, your concern is simply: How zippy are the special effects? How jazzy is the scenery?

Which brings us to Howard Ashman and Alan Menken's "Little Shop of Horrors," the Broadway revival of a show that began life at the 99-seat WPA Theater more than two decades ago.

Based on a very low-budget 1960 picture about a young guy who nurtures a strange and unusual plant, the production ran for several years at the Orpheum in the East Village.

That whole production probably cost infinitely less than Audrey II, the giant, bloodthirsty plant in this one, designed by Martin Robinson of the Jim Henson Company.

Audrey II begins life as a pot-size flower, but by the middle of the second act, she is big enough to swallow several actors whole. (Do they get hazard pay?)

Her roots are so sizable they are "manned" by actors, whose movements are incredibly creepy.

The design is dazzling and, if clever effects are the goal, well worth the price of admission.

The material itself, disarming in a tiny theater, seems less prepossessing here.

It is so heavily amplified that it is hard to understand the lyrics, but when you do, you're not necessarily impressed by them. Sample: "Seymour's the greatest/But I'm dating a semisadist."

As for the score, a lot of it sounds the same, its simplicity clearly a vehicle for the lyrics, which do not require such deference. The one song that has its own character is the unlikely titled love song, "Suddenly Seymour."

Because the overall tone is hard-sell, the actors are without nuance. They have a one-note quality, which is all that a cartoon requires.

Hunter Foster is sweet in a befuddled way as Seymour, the man who feeds Audrey II. Rob Barlett has a droll bluster as his belligerent boss. Douglas Sills is suavely funny in a range of comic parts. Kerry Butler is a little bland as Audrey, the object of Seymour's desire.

Dequina Moore, Trisha Jeffrey and Carla J. Hargrove are funny as a Supremes-like chorus, a joke that was funny 20 years ago but seems a little stale now.

Part of the appeal of the original "Little Shop" was its loopy silliness, accentuated by its low-budget charm.

Here everything seems bloated and relentless. In the case of Audrey II, it doesn't matter. But you find yourself wishing the human element gave the mechanical star some competition.


New York Daily News
10/03/2003

New York Post: "Fun Galore In Store At New 'Little Shop'"

Never trust a plant named Audrey - it will eat your heart out.

Audrey (the actual name is Audrey II) is the voracious carnivore and anti-hero of the wondrously entertaining "Little Shop of Horrors," which opened last night at the Virginia Theater.

The plant, which grows like Topsy, makes the Venus' flytrap look tame, and could readily reduce the Hound of the Baskervilles to the size of a toy poodle.

Best of all, this plant is funny.

This bizarre and brilliant musical, with book and lyrics by the late Howard Ashman and music by Alan Menken, started life off-Broadway in 1982, where it ran for 2,209 performances. It was later staged in London, and then eventually filmed.

I say "eventually" because that was the movie of the musical: Ashman's book was already based on an original screenplay by Charles Griffith for Roger Corman's 1960 cult horror movie spoof of the same name.

The story is engagingly nutty. Seymour, a nerdy young assistant in a run-down florist's shop on Skid Row, one day comes across a very weird plant, but, as he says, "strange plants are my hobby."

He calls the plant Audrey II in honor of Audrey, the other assistant in Mushnik's Florists, whom Seymour unavailingly loves.

Unfortunately, Audrey's obsessed with Orin - a leather-clad, motorcycle-riding dentist and gleeful sadist.

Audrey II proves a very strange plant indeed, first prospering on a little pinpricked blood, which Seymour himself reluctantly provides, but then demanding - with stentorian cries of "Feed me!" - more solid food.

Seymour, by now gaining fame as an eccentric horticulturist, nervously obliges - with campily horrifying results.

The joy of the show is not just these Cormanesque grotesqueries - don't knock them - but in Menken's music, amusingly but memorably suggesting styles from doo-wop to Phil Spector's Wall of Sound, and, most of all, in Ashman's clever book and dazzling lyrics.

What a loss Ashman's death in 1991 was to the musical theater. He had the rarest of ways with words and ideas, and although the ideas run out in the second act, this remains a classic musical.

When the musical was staged off-Broadway at the tiny WPA Theater, it was a modest but perfectly charming affair. Here on Broadway, it has been given the full treatment, with state-of-the-art puppetry from the Henson people undreamed of in 1982.

Indeed, Audrey II is a stage effect (especially in the climactic coup de theatre) that should turn chandeliers, helicopters and even the eponymous motorcar in London's "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" (apparently still set for Broadway) green with envy.

Jerry Zaks' new staging, helped by the neat choreography of Kathleen Marshall, is flawlessly zippy, making the most of the musical, the characters and the delicious designs by Scott Pask (settings), William Ivey Long (costumes), Donald Holder (lighting) and T. Richard Fitzgerald (sound).

Best of all are the darkly comic and beautifully sung performances.

Hunter Foster is the epitome of the nebbishy hero as Seymour; Kerry Butler makes an adorable, if doomed, ingenue as Audrey; Rob Bartlett bumbles cunningly as the down-at-the-heels but plump florist Mushnik, while Douglas Sills bewitches as Orin (think Jack Nicholson) and four or five other characters.

Add to those the style and finesse of DeQuina Moore, Trisha Jeffrey and Carla J. Hargrove as the show's ragamuffin Greek Chorus and Michael-Leon Wooley as the doom-struck Voice of Audrey II - together with that same plant's four-member manipulative team - and you have one of the best casts on Broadway.


New York Post
10/03/2003

New York Times: "A Hungry Actor? Audrey II is Back"

An open letter to Audrey II, the people-eating plant in the revival of the musical ''Little Shop of Horrors,'' which opened last night at the Virginia Theater:

Dear Diva:

You're still hungry, aren't you, you insatiable vixen? It wasn't enough that you starred in a creepy 1960 cult flick, then went on to wow 'em in the Off Broadway musical adaptation in 1982, and then quickly proceeded to the movie version of the musical, where you got to munch on Hollywood big shots like Steve Martin. Oh, no, you had to have Broadway at your feet, too, like Nicole and Glenn. Well, I saw you at the Virginia, baby, and, yes, you're bigger than ever. But some time when it's quiet between shows, Audrey II, take a look at that green face of yours in the mirror and ask yourself what's missing. Try to figure out just what you left behind you when you took the steep road to the Great White Way.
Sincerely,
Someone who knew you when

In the desperate, tourist-courting world of cultural appropriation on Broadway -- which has given us such stillborn aberrations as ''Saturday Night Fever,'' the revised ''Rocky Horror Show'' and the mid-1990's version of ''Grease'' -- the new ''Little Shop of Horrors'' does not rank as a major offender. Directed with silky efficiency by Jerry Zaks, the show is, in word and song, honorably true to the smaller Off Broadway incarnation that became the sleeper of the season 21 years ago.

The urge to go for the glitz has, for once, been kept in check in this retelling of the story of a florist's nerdy assistant who befriends an exotic plant of carnivorous appetites. Howard Ashman's droll, cliché-bending book and lyrics -- inspired by the engagingly grisly Roger Corman movie of the same title -- remain in place. (''You don't meet nice boys on Skid Row, Mr. Mushnik,'' says the show's trampy but wide-eyed heroine.) So does the gleeful 1960's-pastiche score by Alan Menken, which still sneaks into the back of your head and stays there.

There is also an array of personable, professional young talent on display, headed by Hunter Foster, Kerry Butler and Douglas Sills. And the show's leading plant, Audrey II, a puppet created by the Jim Henson Company and Martin P. Robinson, does get to, uh, stretch itself in new ways.

The overall effect is, if not exactly pleasurable, then pleasant. Which is kind of an odd word to apply to a show that features a dentist wearing black leather who extols the joys of inflicting pain, and a first-act finale in which the most notable props are the bloody, dripping parts of a dismembered body.

As an exercise in recycling, which now seems to be the principal industry among Broadway producers, this ''Little Shop'' suggests the conversion of sharp, shiny tin into something closer to Teflon. The 1982 version (first seen at the WPA Theater before settling into a long run at the Orpheum in the East Village) had a gritty, purely urban insolence that celebrated B-movie pulpiness and the gutsy, jive-flavored pop of an earlier time.

The show's young creators and principal performers would have been kids when Mr. Corman's quickie 1960 film (which featured a young Jack Nicholson) came out and when groups like the Shirelles and the Ronettes were topping the charts with doo-wop ballads of love and heartbreak. The musical had the double-edged savviness that comes from people's remembering the songs and movies that flavored their childhoods with equal parts affection and sardonic distance.

It was a show that knew that to make fun of something is not necessarily to dismiss it. And the cast, led by Lee Wilkof and the sublime Ellen Greene as the young lovers in jeopardy, brought a visceral affinity to the material that made it something more than camp. (You can sense the same dynamic at work today in ''Avenue Q,'' the witty musical homage to ''Sesame Street.'') It was a pleasant surprise when Frank Oz's 1986 film adaptation, which paired Ms. Greene with Rick Moranis, held on to that essential quality of admiring archness.

For the current ''Little Shop,'' the show's edges have been sanded to a smooth finish that never pricks, nicks or otherwise stimulates. As re-envisioned by the designer Scott Pask, the production's setting on Skid Row, U.S.A., makes cobwebs look clean and bloodstains benignly picturesque. It's the same aesthetic that pervades the Haunted Mansion ride at Disney World.

Orchestrated by Danny Troob, with new arrangements by Michael Kosarin, this ''Little Shop'' begins with an overamplified, Grand Guignol blast of rock-'n'-roll-style scare music to churn up the audience, while the blood-red oversize letters spelling out the show's title glow from the drop curtain. The feeling is of an overture to a Halloween children's party, a promise of fangs without bite.

Except for the menacing activities of Audrey II, whose soulful bass voice is provided by Michael-Leon Wooley, this curtain-raiser is pretty much the high point of crowd-teasing thrills. The cast members all have agreeable voices and synthetically precise comic timing, and they don't try to oversell themselves, a rarity in Broadway musicals these days.

But in truth, a bit more vulgarity might be welcome. Aside from Mr. Sills, who enjoys himself lustily in a variety of supporting parts, the performers don't bring much oomph or original eccentricity to their roles. As Seymour, the grown-up orphan boy who works in the derelict flower shop of Mr. Mushnik (Rob Bartlett, known for Don Imus's radio show), Mr. Foster disappointingly finds no equivalent for the smart, stylized work he provided as the juvenile lead of ''Urinetown.''

As his love interest and co-worker, Audrey (Audrey II is named for her), the appealing Ms. Butler (late of ''Hairspray'') is a sugary wisp of a woman, with none of the lumpy, endearing whorishness that Ms. Greene brought to the part. With both Ms. Butler and Mr. Foster, you're always aware of the clean-cut winners who are portraying these smudged, bruised losers.

Their voices and their smiles sparkle. But to put over the songs of ''Little Shop,'' you have to get at least a little dirty, to convey why the music that's parodied here felt dangerous to parents in the Eisenhower era. Few of this version's performers show any natural affinity for the hook-driven, soul-inflected style spoofed in such infectiously melodic terms by Ashman (who died in 1991) and Mr. Menken, who went on to collaborate on the delightful scores for the animated Disney movies ''Little Mermaid'' and ''Beauty and the Beast.''

Even the trio of street urchins (DeQuina Moore, Trisha Jeffrey and Carla J. Hargrove) who function as a Phil Spector-style Greek chorus fail to capture the sexy, close-harmony earnestness of the pop hits that inspired their songs. It is possible to summon that era's style without having lived through it. Just check out the young ensemble of ''Hairspray'' if you have any doubts.

Only Mr. Sills, best known for the title role in the ill-fated ''Scarlet Pimpernel,'' regularly breaks through the enveloping skin of blandness. He brings an appropriately toothy, hard-smiling zest to the role of Audrey's abusive boyfriend, the dentist. If he doesn't make you forget Steve Martin's virtuosic rendering of the role in the movie, Mr. Sills still manages to redefine that part on his own happy-go-lucky terms.

But it is Audrey II that the audience most warms to. Embodied by a series of puppets, which grow larger and larger as it consumes more and more of the cast of characters, this plant sets a new standard for monstrous egos on Broadway. It may indeed turn out to be the perfect matinee idol for theatergoers who, like so many Americans, prefer their treats to be supersized.


New York Times
10/03/2003

Newsday: "It's a Monster 'Shop Sh-Bop'"

Ah, those lips. Those teeth. Those man-sized leafy tendrils? Yes, Audrey II, the beloved and diabolically carnivorous foliage of stage and screen, has returned to the city that first heard him?-her?-it? sing as the basso profundo star of the 1982 horror musical-comedy, "Little Shop of Horrors."

You may well ask yourself: Does the land of "Hairspray" need another recycled, over-the-top, blow-up airhead doll of a pulp musical with ersatz rock and roll and a backdrop of urban-black pop culture? Does a show created Off-Broadway on pure imagination and a nickel get dwarfed, defanged and glitzed-up in a big-ticket Broadway house? Does the ... oh, never mind.

"Little Shop," which opened last night at the Virginia Theatre in a $10-million revival, is still great useless enjoyment. The thing is creepy and cheesy, big-boned but still junky enough to be true to the best horticultural Faust musical of our day. "Little Shop," you may recall, began life as one of Roger Corman's quicky black-and-white B-flicks in 1960, with some kid named Jack Nicholson in a bit part.

A couple of decades later, two guys named Howard Ashman and Alan Menken dreamed up a musical version for the teeny WPA Theater in pre-hip Chelsea and, in 1986, Steve Martin was unforgettable as the sadistic motorcycle dentist in the movie musical.

Ashman and Menken went on to reanimate Disney's cartoon cosmos with "The Little Mermaid" and "Beauty and the Beast." Ashman died of AIDS in 1991. Neither gave the theater another musical with the wit and joy of their sweet, breakthrough spoof.

The current production, - rescued and recast by director Jerry Zaks from a reputed Florida tryout disaster, - knows precisely what the show is. And, despite new fabulosity in the technology of the insatiable Audrey II, he understands the need to fake small.

Apropos of the fabulous, Scott Pask has designed a demented nightmare of a slum for the botanical apocalypse, described in the prologue as "an early year of a decade not too long before our own." The Skid Row that houses Mushnik's pathetically unlikely floral shop is peopled with derelicts and an unpredictably sprightly trio, a girl-group Greek-chorus with attitude. The sky above has a wavy, Van Gogh madness, lit like a garish bad dream by Donald Holder. William Ivey Long designs sensationally inappropriate hooker eveningwear for Audrey - the girl, not the plant - that may well be more difficult to wear than the songs are to sing.

The cast is as sly as it is ideally foolish. Hunter Foster, the original Bobby Strong, hero of "Urinetown," makes an even more masterly nerd. Foster plays Seymour, the orphan who lives and toils in the languishing shop of the not-quite-so-kindly old Jew, Mushnik. Rob Bartlett may overdo the Zero Mostel imitation a bit, but Mushnik's emotional inconsistency keeps our sense of him happily off-kilter. Kerry Butler, so perfectly snooty as Penny Pingleton in "Hairspray," looks terrific in Long's costumes, but is surprisingly bland as Seymour's secret love Audrey, the good-girl-slut-masochist.

Butler is a belter and a pro, but we miss the hapless, damaged loveliness that Ellen Greene created long ago.

It is grand to find Zaks back in his stride after a period of commercially successful but unremarkable work. And Kathleen Marshall's choreography for the pitch-perfect girl group - DeQuina Moore, Trisha Jeffrey and Carla J. Hargrove - makes '60s cliches look like new brainstorms. Douglas Sills is the nicest of evil hambones in a bouquet of silly characters, most conspicuously the dentist.

Finally, there is the ever-growing Audrey II - frequently referred to as "what kinda weirdo plant is that?" - with the rich, booming, unsettlingly sensuous voice of Michael-Leon Wooley. There also are – we hesitate to say puppeteers - manipulators, led by the creature's original creative papa, Martin P. Robinson. Above all, there is Menken's knowing pastiche of pop-tune iconography and Ashman's lyrics: mythically ingrained phrase rhythms overlaid with "call a cop/bop sh'bop," and the lovers' "there's-a-place-for-us" ballad, "Somewhere That's Green."

There are more producers listed above the title than there are actors on the stage. In a little show where a dentist is called "leader of the plaque," however, much is forgiven.


Newsday
10/03/2003

USA Today: "Shop of Horrors never reaches full flower"

There's a new arch-villain on Broadway, and he vants to suck your blood.

No, it isn't that guy. Audrey II, the heavy in Little Shop of Horrors (** ½ out of four), which opened Thursday at the Virginia Theatre, hails not from Transylvania but from a flower shop on Skid Row. He's a man-eating plant who sings like Isaac Hayes, burps like Howard Stern and spews insults like a deposed cable TV talk show host.

But unlike Audrey II, who blooms each time he bites into a human vein, this revival of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken's 1982 off-Broadway musical (based on a 1960 Roger Corman flick) never rises to the heights of inspired wackiness it reaches for.

The new production, breezily directed by Jerry Zaks, doesn't lack for talent. Hunter Foster, who established his credentials as a nerdy-cute leading man in Urinetown! The Musical, is ideally cast as Seymour Krelbourn, the hapless florist who literally gives life and limb to Audrey II, all in an effort to win over the dizzy blonde co-worker who is the plant's namesake.

As Seymour's love interest, the original Audrey, Hairspray alumna Kerry Butler, speaks in a breathy New Yawk accent and sings with a tangy yearning perfectly suited to the re-Beatles pop melodrama informing Menken's tunes. Carla J. Hargrove, Trisha Jeffrey and DeQuina Moore are similarly effective as the girl group that comments on the goofy proceedings, acting as a kind of bootylicious Greek chorus.

Unfortunately, these appealing young performers can't sustain the show on their own, and the comic support from actors cast in darker, more flamboyant roles is disappointingly flimsy.

Rob Bartlett fares well enough as Mushnik, the shop proprietor who is both mentor and tormentor to Seymour. It's the kind of hackneyed, Borscht Belt-based part that could have just as easily fallen to Nathan Lane or Jackie Mason, and Bartlett, to his credit, manages to lend some credibility to the caricature.

In contrast, Douglas Sills' portrayal of Orin, the sadistic, nitrous oxide-sniffing dentist who is Seymour's romantic rival, is all hammy histrionics. A strapping musical theater veteran, Sills is a powerful singer and a convincingly unctuous cad, but he lacks the facility of a natural comedian. The famous scene in which Seymour confronts Orin in his office - immortalized in the 1986 film version of Horrors, which featured Steve Martin as the dentist and Rick Moranis as the avenging nebbish - falls flat. Subsequent sequences featuring Sills in a variety of cheeky bit parts are vaguely amusing at best.

As for Audrey II, he is given a booming baritone by Michael Leon-Wooley, who gets to bellow such bons mots as, "Cut the crap and bring on the meat!" And thanks to a group of ensemble members who wriggle gamely throughout the show, we're able to see the creature move and grow - and even, at one point, lurch ominously toward the audience.

Hey, who says you can't get a cheap meal in the theater district anymore?


USA Today
10/03/2003

Variety: "Little Shop of Horrors"

Much like the horticultural aberration that it celebrates, the little musical "Little Shop of Horrors" seems to have mutated in the 20 years since it first set down roots in a tiny space off Off Broadway. Here it is, two decades later, a jolly green giant in a big Broadway house, delighting audiences anew with its R&B score to sell your soul for, its peppy cast of Skid Row denizens with Motor City vocal cords, its affectionate goofing on a cheesy 1960s Roger Corman picture.

The musical does, at times, look small on the stage of the Virginia Theater. With just four significant roles (four and a half, counting the voice of that man-eating plant), a chorus numbering three (but what a trio!) and essentially a single setting, it was clearly designed with the dimensions of Off Broadway theater in mind. And to their credit, the creators of this snappy, endearing and gorgeously sung new revival have resisted the impulse to embellish it with unnecessary clutter.

The bloodthirsty fern has been given a booster shot, to be sure, and is spectacularly realized in several sizes by the Jim Henson Co. and Martin B. Robinson. And set designer Scott Pask has provided city vistas scribbled in the style of period comicbooks to amplify the grungy atmosphere of Mushnik's flower shop -- and fill the capacious Virginia proscenium. Donald Holder bathes the stage in colorfully lurid lighting. But the musical as a whole hasn't been given the steroid treatment: It's still adorable, and modest in its sweetness and silliness.

Audiences new to it aren't likely to notice that it sometimes seems a little bit like a very talented baton twirler on the stage of Carnegie Hall. The truth is, in the past two decades Broadway has shrunk to fit "Little Shop." This show pioneered the kind of tongue-in-cheek approach to musical theater that has since set up shop all over the Great White Way. From its source in celluloid (and no classic!) to its self-mockingly ditzy book and lyrics (by the late Howard Ashman) to its rhythmic score that looked sideways to the world of the pop charts rather than back to Broadway history, "Little Shop" was a harbinger of bigger things to come. Traces of its influence can be found in shows as disparate as "Urinetown" and "Mamma Mia!," while its most successful spawn would be that big-haired behemoth just across 52nd Street, "Hairspray."

If the new "Little Shop" can't compete in terms of sheer theatrical dazzle with some of its splashier offspring -- the poky plot revolves around a series of meals for that blood-sucking succulent -- it's certainly not due to any lapses on the part of the new creative team. After a tryout in Florida opened to mixed notices, the show's producers tapped consummate Broadway gagmeister Jerry Zaks to put things in order. He recast some roles and, presumably, juiced up the comedy. The show whizzes by briskly and brightly, and there's always another of Ashman and Alan Menken's infectiously bopping songs just ahead to set the pulse racing.

Retained from the Florida tryout is Hunter Foster as Seymour, the nebbishy gofer at a withering nursery who discovers a peculiar new species of plant. The "Urinetown" star, in a dirty baseball cap and rumpled khakis, makes a delightful loser. Seymour's mousy insecurity evaporates only when he pours his quickly souring soul into his songs. He's agonizingly attracted by the riches promised by his alliance with his monstrous discovery but good-hearted enough to know he's doing wrong.

Kerry Butler, so memorable as Penny Pingleton in "Hairspray," will be battling memories of the original Audrey -- and for many the only Audrey -- Ellen Greene. I never saw Greene onstage, but even in the movie she was a transfixing, utterly original presence, with a voice of hair-raising intensity. But Butler, less achingly vulnerable than her predecessor, works her own wonders with the role. She, too, is able to find the poignant notes in what is essentially a cartoon character, and her performance of Audrey's simultaneously hilarious and touching ballad of yearning, "Somewhere That's Green," is a knockout; you marvel at how such a soul-stirring voice can emerge from such a tiny frame.

Douglas Sills, formerly Broadway's camp "Scarlet Pimpernel," plays Audrey's "motorcycle dentist" boyfriend, one of the musical's most inspired inventions. Sills is deliciously smarmy, and he gets a chance to show off his own rich vocal resources. But he is not really the kind of chameleonic clown who can make the most of the quick-change gag that has him flitting through a half-dozen roles in the musical's latter going. An A for effort, nonetheless.

Rounding out the cast are Rob Bartlett as a sad-eyed Mushnik, the nursery owner who ends up as a meal for his star attraction, and DeQuina Moore, Trisha Jeffrey and Carla J. Hargrove, the girl-group chorus, who execute the snappy moves of Kathleen Marshall's choreography with the same precision and authority they bring to the glorious vocal arrangements by Robert Billig.

Since all the characters have been digested by curtain time, it falls to these girls to lead the evening's fun finale, "Don't Feed the Plants," which reveals that the ravenous offspring of Audrey II have spread across the country and accomplished their evil intentions, to eat Cleveland … and Des Moines … and Peoria! I can't vouch for those locales, but it's certainly true that musicals hatched from the spores of this unassuming little show have, in a sense, eaten Broadway, which is increasingly hostile to species of musical theater that seek to do anything other than show audiences a goofy good time. It's only fair that the mother of them all should get a bite of the action at last.


Variety
10/02/2003

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