Thursday, July 2, 2015

LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS: The Crowd Showers Ellen Greene with Love in Encores! Off-Center Production

The roar of the capacity crowd shook the rafters at last night’s opening performance of Little Shop of Horrors, a showcase presentation of New York City Center’s Encores! Off-Center summer program. And despite the participation of Hollywood superstar Jake Gyllenhaal and popular Saturday Night Live regular Taran Killam, the person receiving all of that love was Ellen Greene, reprising the role of the sad-eyed Audrey whom she first brought to life in the 1982 Off-Broadway production of the musical and later in the 1986 film version. 

Shouts, whistles, and sustained applause greeted Ms. Greene with every word she uttered and every note she sang.  At the end of the evening, when Mr. Gyllenhaal graciously gave her the last solo bow, she appeared to be overwhelmed by all of the attention.  Who knew that after thirty years and at a rather more mature age (you do the math), Ms. Greene — whose last Broadway appearance was in 1993 in a short-lived revival of the 1935 comedy Three Men On A Horse — had such a devoted fan base?   

If you only remember Little Shop of Horrors from the movie version of the musical, the theatrical version is smaller and its humor is darker. It is closer in spirit to the original quirky Roger Corman film from 1960 that famously featured Jack Nicholson in the supporting role of the masochistic dental patient (Bill Murray played the part in the 1986 movie).  As in the original, the musical ends in a note of triumph for Audrey II, the plant from outer space that is set on devouring all of humanity.   

The Encores! Off-Center production, directed by Dick Scanlan, does a fine job of capturing that pared-down Off-Broadway vibe, with little by way of sets and props (a pointed finger serves as a gun, for example). There are also a number of jokey remarks about the fact that this is a semi-staged reading. When Seymour, the nebbish-y shop assistant (played with self-effacing charm by Mr. Gyllenhaal) discovers the plant’s penchant for human blood, it happens when he gets a paper cut from the script that all of the cast members carry and occasionally read from. 

Musically, the score (book and lyrics by Howard Ashman and music by Alan Menckin) is fun and bouncy (the title song, in particular), with a couple of very sweet ballads (“Somewhere That’s Green” and “Suddenly, Seymour”) to round things out.  Mr. Gyllenhaal and Ms. Greene more than hold their own with their singing.  Eddie Cooper, dressed in an oversized green fake fur that makes him look like a giant Muppet on St. Patrick’s Day, handles the booming bass role of Audrey II with aplomb. The backup trio of Tracy Nicole Chapman, Marva Hicks, and Ramona Keller are first-rate, as is the on-stage band, under Chris Fenwick’s musical direction. 

The biggest surprise is how well Mr. Killam takes to the stage, playing Audrey’s sadistic dentist boyfriend and a number of other smaller roles. His television-and-movie-bred sense of comedic timing translates well here, and it would be nice to see him in additional roles on or off Broadway.

Still and all, this is Ms. Greene’s moment of glory. Long may she, and Audrey, live in our hearts!

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