Review of Little Shop of Horrors, starring Jonathan Groff, Tammy Blanchard & Christian Borle, at Westside Theatre

  • Our critic's rating:
    Date:
    October 18, 2019
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    The plant at the centre of Little Shop of Horrors that feeds on human blood may have had its sights on world domination, but the musical that was based on the low-budget 1960 comedy sci-fi film of the same name has actually long achieved it, so it ultimately got what it wanted. And now the show has come full circle, 37 years on from its Off-Off-Broadway beginnings at the WPA Theatre (now no more) in May 1982, before moving to the larger Orpheum Theater on Second Avenue in the East Village that summer, where it ran for five years and became the highest-grossing show in Off-Broadway history until then, to find a new home at another Off-Broadway house just off Eighth Avenue in midtown Manhattan.

    In the intervening years, it has been turned into a feature film and played in the West End and on Broadway (the latter in a new production in 2003 that ran for less than a year at the Virginia Theatre, now the August Wilson), but its true home is a more modestly scaled place like the 270-seater Westside Theatre, a former Baptist church built in 1889 that has been used as a theatre space since the mid-1970s.

    But while it is naturally a special pleasure and privilege to see the show at close quarters again, everything about this new version screams Broadway, from its above-the-title casting of multiple Tony Award nominees Jonathan Groff, Tammy Blanchard and two-time Tony winner Christian Borle, to its creative staff, led by director Michael Mayer, Tony winner for his original production of Spring Awakening. And unfortunately not everyone alas is willing to let the show sing and speak for itself, but seeks to portray it on a larger canvas.

    The production often feels too large and indulgent on this small stage, starting with Julian Crouch's expansive set that consumes the theatre. This may be the priciest Skid Row ever brought to an Off-Broadway stage.

    The performances are at times similarly exaggerated. In trying to mine new colours for Audrey, the abused floral shop assistant who falls for her work colleague Seymour as he nurtures a new exotic plant that he names Audrey II after her, Tammy Blanchard channels her into a sultry Rita Heyworth-inspired character, with her songs slowed down into torch songs of despair. 'Somewhere that's Green' sounds less aspirational of a better life than a dread doubt of ever achieving it.

    Jonathan Groff seems similarly depressed and downtrodden as Seymour, while Christian Borle plays the dentist Orin and a range of other characters purely as bright, eager caricature.

    There are some compensating pleasures from the trio of street urchins Ronnette (Ari Groover), Crystal (Salome Smith) and Chiffon (Joy Woods), who are a kind of Greek chorus observing and commenting on the action in Alan Menken's wonderful pastiche score. It is here that the enduring pleasures of the show itself are most apparent.

    Nicholas Mahon's new puppet designs for the plant itself are impressive as it grows ever larger. But less, in this production, would be more amongst the human elements.

    (Photo by Emilio Madrid-Kuser)

    "A certain carnivorous plant has been repotted in Hell’s Kitchen, and I am delighted to report that it’s thriving there. This hot showbiz shrub of yesteryear, which goes by the name of Audrey II, has found a new dance partner, a performer who can coax the tendril-stretching star quality out of a freakish botanical specimen. That would be Jonathan Groff, who is generating major nerd charisma in Michael Mayer’s delicious revival of Little Shop of Horrors."
    Ben Brantley for New York Times

    "Tight feels right, because the roots of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s terrific show are in small houses. Now the insanely catchy doo-wop musical occupies the 270-seat Westside Theatre, with a bare-bones set and not a projection in sight. Freed from dealing with the usual trappings of modern musicals, you can feel the actors let their vines down."
    Johnny Oleksinski for New York Post

    "Michael Mayer’s deeply satisfying revival at the Westside Theatre, with a set by Julian Crouch, has the right sense of scale for a musical that began Off Broadway and is most at home there. It’s a little show, and the closer we get to it, the more it sucks us in."
    Adam Feldman for Time Out New York

    "What's most immediately captivating about the limited-engagement production is that, deluxe casting aside, it eschews Broadway scale in favor of a return to the show's roots in an off-Broadway theater that seats just 270. That accounts for the production's sell-out business, two-month extension and cluster of hopeful ticket-buyers waiting on cancellation lines at every performance. While it's become something of a classic, this remains at heart a scrappy little pastiche musical whose charms thrive most vibrantly in an intimate house."
    David Rooney for Hollywood Reporter

    "Directed at a quick clip by Michael Mayer, this Little Shop is played out on the small, tight stage of the Westside Theater with an ever-growing, masterfully manipulated plant (kudos to Eric Wright, Teddy Yudain, Kris Roberts, Chelsea Turbin). The close confines give this Little Shop the intimacy of home viewing."
    A.D. Amorosi for Variety