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.