What follows is an unadulterated rave for the Encores! Off-Center presentation, at City Center, of the beloved Howard-Ashman-Alan Menken Little Shop of Horrors, as adapted from the 1960 Roger Corman movie. But if I were you, I'd stop reading right now and hustle to the theater to grab whatever tickets are available. That's because only two performances remain--this afternoon and this evening (July 2).
For those still with me, what you immediately need to know is that Ellen Greene--who originated the role of poor, put-upon Audrey off-Broadway in 1982 and then played it in England and elsewhere before appearing in the movie (with Rick Moranis)--has these 33 years on decided she's happy to reprise her hilarious performance.
You'd think she'd know exactly what to do vocally and physically, and you'd be right. Her squeaky-voiced Audrey remains perfection and, lithe and nubile, she's still as malleable as a rag doll. When she sings "Somewhere That's Green" in beautifully controlled and modulated, not to say hushed, tones, she may be deliberately breathy, but for an entire audience she takes the breath away. The applause that greets her final hushed notes is like nothing heard recently in a theater, unless it's the applause she received on entering. It goes on throughout what turns into an unabashed love fest.
That unceasing appreciation continues when at the curtain call Jake Gyllenhaal, who's played shlumpy Audrey II botanist Seymour chooses to leave Greene alone on stage for a final solo bow. This is after the classy Gyllenhaal has proved a revelation in his role. Seeming to have spent time watching Woody Allen doing his deferential shtick, the versatile actor (why no Oscar nomination for last year's Nightcrawler?) sings as if a musical comedy veteran.
Shuffling round-shouldered with hands often jammed in his pockets, he's giving as effective an audition for future singing roles as can be. (He's also giving a persuasive audition to be the next Allen stand-in in an Allen flick.) When Green and he face off for the "Suddenly Seymour" dueling duet, it's tunerdom at its most sublime. Of course, gratitude must also be expressed to Menken and the (still lamented) late Ashman for their melodious and riotous score, conducted for all its pop popping by Chris Fenwick.
Not diminished a whit by the passing of time (and the so-so, because bloated, 2003 revival), Little Shop of Horrors tells what happens when Skid Row flower establishment, run by hapless but likable proprietor Mr. Mushnik (Joe Grifasi), attains nation-wide notoriety as Seymour raises Venus-Fly-Trap-like Audrey II (Eddie Cooper, adorable Anwar Kareem as young Audrey II), which is a new species requiring blood and blood alone as its grow food.
The pleasantly garish show--here a Skid Row backdrop and some sticks of furniture are the only set Donyale Werle, supplies--is narrated by back-up-singer-threesome Chiffon (Tracy Nicole Chapman), Crystal (Marva Hicks) and Ronnette (Ramona Keller) and further populated by Audrey's sadistic dentist boyfriend Orin (Saturday Night Live's Taran Killam, playing all other nicely exaggerated parts as well). They're all gussied up in Clint Ramos's costumes.
Because the Encores! series, winter season as well as summer, technically remains a concert reading, some cast members--Gyllenhaal chief among them--are on book, but that hardly matters as Audrey II's mounting dominance over Seymour, Audrey and the others barrels on. Only picky spectators would be bothered by what flaws there are in as a flawless recreation of one of the musical annal's most delightful entries as you'd wish for.
Its unlikely that the welcome production, directed with care by Dick Scanlan, will be moved, like, say, Violet, was in a past City Center's summer season. Were it to be, that many more audiences would be enraptured and roused to one of the few truly deserving standing ovations instantly accorded it.
By the way, the finale is framed as a tribute to Ashman, and that, too, is unquestionably deserved.