Little Shop Of Horrors Book and Lyrics by Howard Ashman. Music by Alan Menken. Directed by Jerry Zaks. Choreography by Kathleen Marshall. Set design by Scott Pask. Costume design by William Ivey Long. Lighting design by Donald Holder. Sound design by T. Richard Fitzgerald. Orchestrations by Danny Troob. Cast: Hunter Foster, Kerry Butler, with Rob Bartlett, Michael Leon Wooley, Carla J. Hargrove, Trisha Jeffrey, Dequina Moore, Martin P. Robinson, Anthony Asbury, Bill Remington, Matt Vogel, and Douglas Sills.
It's a pleasure to be able to report that the Broadway premiere of Little Shop of Horrors - the hit 1982 musical version of the 1960 Roger Corman film - has undergone few script and score changes; this is almost exactly the same script and score that made the Off-Broadway production and countless others all over the world audience-pleasing hits. And it would be a joy to be able to say that experienced Broadway director Jerry Zaks has lived up to the challenge of that material and helmed this production to sublime comic and musical perfection. That's simply not the case.
The show's inherent heart and plaintive charms have been eviscerated, and the remnants let loose at the Virginia Theatre to plant themselves down for what is likely to be, regardless, a long stay. It's important to note, though, that no production of the show, however misguided, can completely smother the show's foundational sweetness or its killer story, and this production is no exception.
The story of nebbishy Seymour Krelbourn, who discovers a new breed of plant with a taste for human blood, can't help but play. Anyone can relate to Seymour's troubled background, longing to be more than he is, and his yearning desire for his lovely co-worker Audrey, who's stuck in a violent relationship with a self-destructive dentist. But aside from those textual basics, this is a cold and forlorn production. Zaks - who took over the show after a reportedly disastrous Florida tryout that saw most of its original cast and creative team depart - has done some admirable work, but not solved the show's most pressing problem: how to make this quintessentially Off-Broadway musical fly on the Great White Way.
His primarily solution, to fill the stage from floor to flies with Scott Pask's eye-popping sets - foreboding vistas of downtown squalor and ominous thunderclouds - was a good step, but it shouldn't have been the only one. Far more serious is that the show requires no more than - and flourishes with - a tiny cast (traditionally nine, here expanded to twelve), and that the Howard Ashman and Alan Menken score and Ashman book, while undeniably modern classics, are made up completely of the smallest big jokes and most restrained showstoppers imaginable.
They can all be deliriously delightful in the right environment, though none is capable of quite filling the large and often unforgiving Virginia. Danny Troob's hearty new orchestrations for Henry Aronson's rollicking, Broadway-sized band give the music as much breadth as possible, but while Donald Holder's sometimes overly hyperactive lights help Zaks make the smaller numbers bigger, they don't do much for the bigger songs. Choreographer Kathleen Marshall's underpowered dances also provide little assistance.
The performers - save one - don't find much size in their roles to fill the gaps. That exception is Rob Bartlett's Mushnik, physically imposing and able to span the distance from the stage to the mezzanine with a glare, an arched eyebrow, or a raised hand; he has little time onstage overall, but makes the most of it. Douglas Sills is funnier in his numerous small character roles than in his larger one as the nitrous oxide-sucking dentist; he doesn't find all the comedy possible, but he does well enough. So do Carla J. Hargrove, Trisha Jeffrey, and DeQuina Moore as the Greek chorus of three street urchins who belt out the show's most infectious tunes in finely matched close harmony.
The two central roles are more problematic. Kerry Butler misses most of Audrey's laughs and touches on only the outermost boundaries of her heart, but her performance has charm and is at least moderately affecting. And her singing (if not always her lower-class New York accent) is dynamite. Hunter Foster, a semi-hunky leading man type, is right for Seymour vocally but in no other way; he has far too much faith in himself, and his obviously affected whiny voice tends to grate after a while. His Seymour is never a man torn between fame, love, and destruction. Unsurprisingly, when Butler and Foster come together for their big duet - "Suddenly Seymour," one of the show's most enduring songs - they raise the rafters but can't fall in love. Neither can we.
As is so often the case, Seymour's plant Audrey II is this production's most vibrant star. Its voice is provided with amply booming bass-baritone effectiveness by Michael-Leon Wooley, but it's Martin P. Robinson who steals the show. The designer and manipulator of the original production's series of Audrey IIs, Robinson has returned to design (with the Jim Henson Company) and operate (with assistants Anthony Asbury, Bill Remington, and Matt Vogel) them again. These Audrey IIs provide the most dynamic and viscerally effective puppetry Broadway has seen in ages. You never have to worry about these puppets getting lost in a big house.
It's in watching the flawless synchronization between Robinson and Wooley that you realize how Broadway professionalism can get certain things tremendously right even while getting others very wrong; if I didn't know the plant wasn't actually speaking, I wouldn't be able to tell. They're all that good. Of course, even Robinson and his cohorts aren't completely immune to this production's problematic aura: During the show's final (and only truly stage-filling) number, Robinson takes Audrey II for one final, cataclysmic, blood hunt. But though the entire cast gives that number the evening's most fulfilling performance, when the number reaches its musical and dramatic climax, Robinson and Audrey II let the audience off easy, and pull back.
I guess they, like the rest of this Little Shop of Horrors, just weren't quite bloodthirsty enough.