Little Shop of Horrors is largely to blame for launching my lifelong love of musicals. In 1982, writer Howard Ashman and composer Alan Menken (who would later inaugurate Disney's "Second Golden Age" with The Little Mermaid) transformed Roger Corman's no-budget thriller about a man-eating plant into an off-Broadway mock horror masterpiece. Frank Oz's 1986 film adaptation featured everything that appealed to my 12-year-old self: a monstrous Muppet, the geek from Ghostbusters and gorgeous Ellen Greene (a childhood friend of my parents). In the years since, I've sought out several stage productions — including Theatre Downtown's modest charmer in 2006 and 2003's robotically assisted Broadway botch — so I approached the Plaza hoping Gramercy Theatre's new production would satisfy.
They make a terrific first impression with tentacles painted on the building's exterior, potted mini-flytraps on the lobby bar tables and designer Jeffrey Schultz's textured and turntabled Skid Row set, billowing with enough faux fog to fill Universal's haunted houses. The cast list is equally top-shelf: Leads Michelle Allsopp and Steven Lane are Equity performers with strong pipes; theme-park legend Ron Schneider takes Mushnik's second-rate songs (all cut from the film) and sells them; and Shonda Thurman, Colecta Johnson and VarieTease's Tymisha Harris are soulfully sassy as the street-urchin backup singers. I'm happy my old friend Vee Sylvain has fulfilled his longtime ambition of voicing Audrey II, and they even got newscaster Bud Hedinger (on tape) to narrate. Then there's Vegas choreographer Jeffrey Page, plus plant-puppets by Emmy nominee Paul McAvene. With so much talent and so many resources, what could possibly go wrong?
The self-conscious program notes promise "real substance, something weighty and human" and a "starker" approach to the story. As a result, Seymour (Lane) has lost much of his nice-guy nebbishness, neutering his character arc; and Audrey is deflowered of her airheaded innocence, leaving behind crack-whorish cynicism. Other characters, however, like the hip-swiveling, pompadoured dentist (Kevin E. Kelly), remain rooted firmly in cartoonland. Stiffly blocked actors talk past other, barely making eye contact, and then shove around the supposedly massive seedpod while shuffling about the set. The backing band sounds thin and tentative, sapping the music of its requisite rock & roll spirit, and inconsistent mic mixing muddles the lyrics.
From flaky fly cues and piecemeal props (please paint the orange safety plug in the pistol) to an awkwardly anticlimactic act break, sloppy staging sabotages this production's on-paper potential. I longed to love this Little Shop, but after Gramercy's similarly overproduced and underrehearsed Magician's Nephew, I shouldn't have been surprised.
In an epic pre-show curtain speech, director Dan Roche proudly promoted Gramercy as a "commercial" theater (like in "Chicago and New York"), as opposed to Orlando's nonprofit and "501-whadayacallit" companies. Dismiss me as a jealous, poor theater producer if you please; just remember that commercial isn't always synonymous with firstname.lastname@example.org