The current Off-Broadway production of Little Shop of Horrors is exactly what fans want. It’s a tight, intimate production with quality singing and an A+ puppet.
I’ve never seen the show on stage (with vague memories of the film). I came to it with no particular affection (knowing many love it). It has incredibly tuneful songs and delightfully charming lyrics. It’s an odd, wee show about the dangers of capitalism told with sci-fi, B-movie panache.
You’d think with its dark, strange core I’d enjoy it. But somehow, I was totally immune to this straightforward, bright, and somewhat loud production from director Michael Mayer.
Jonathan Groff plays the dumpy and unattractive Seymour (he tries his best to be plain in the beauty suit god gave him) who nurses a plant from seedling to sensation with human blood. The plant, Audrey II (voiced by Kingsley Leggs) will never be satisfied but the more success that comes to Seymour the harder it is to walk away from Audrey II and all that’s she’s given him. With his usual comedic ease, Christian Borle plays an array of pliable-faced characters including the sadist Fonzarelli, Orin Scrivello, D.D.S. He’s done this schtick before. He’ll do it again. They’ve given him Tonys for it.
Meanwhile the show has got your doo-wop musical numbers with character-driven choreo, a rundown flower shop that slowly gets taken over by a gigantic man-eating plant, and lightning cracks and red lights dancing over the word “Horrors” hanging above the stage. All together it’s all as subtle as a sledgehammer. It doesn’t need to be. It functions perfectly well without nuance, I guess.
The man behind me laughed at every joke and moment with the same level of pants-pissing guffaw-ry throughout. Most people would be with him.
It just left me empty. For me, the only remotely interesting choice happening on that stage came from Tammy Blanchard as Audrey, the woman Seymour pines for and the woman on the receiving end of a lot of physical abuse from Dr. Dental-Demento.
Mumblemouthed, slurry, drunk some of the time (maybe most of the time?), she often operates with a delay, at a mediated distance from everything—like it’s all happening to her through a fog of alcohol and numbness. Mary Tyrone with cleavage. Yet, as the audience laughed at jokes about domestic violence, she’s cracking apart like Pangaea in front of us.
Audrey does not believe she deserves love, happiness, or anything but this marginal Skid Row existence where she pours herself into a dress, puts her lipstick on, and gets thrown into her boyfriend’s fists whenever the mood strikes him. With a working class accent, a gravelly burr to her singing, the most she ends up dreaming of is somewhere less fancy than Levittown.
Blanchard with reddened eyes and folded together knees, is soaked in shame. She cannot look at Seymour or us directly. To be seen by Seymour is almost too much for her to bear. She cannot process Seymour’s tenderness towards her. She pulls away. If she allows herself this hope, she might want more.
Blanchard is a Mannerist painting here. Imagine Audrey painted by El Greco, with big blocks of color and elongated sadness that she carries from her bright red hair to her tippy black high-heels. We see the brushstrokes in her performance but the overall impression of all these elements makes for a portrait whose scale is monumental. Her world may be small but her pain stretches back generations. Blanchard is pulling something deep out of her while still operating in the highly-saturated, exaggerated vernacular of the musical.
Capitalism doesn’t just grind up humans into plant power. It makes no room for those who aren’t willing to concede to its rules. It’s heartless whereas Audrey maybe has too much heart. No wonder she’s drunk. She has to dull her senses to make this agonizing world even remotely navigable for as long as she walks it. But being the open wound that Audrey is moving through this show, Blanchard left me in awe with her honest, straightforward, and exposed performance.
The giant plant may have an enormous bite, but Blanchard is the Audrey with real teeth.