October is upon us, and what better time to experience the gruesomely hilarious, musical cult classic “Little Shop of Horrors” than during the spookiest season? The Westside Theatre makes the perfect home for this Off-Broadway legend. The show has a relatively small ensemble and limited set compared to some of the spectacles on Broadway, and yet it all comes together for a larger than life experience in the intimate 270-seat space on West 43rd Street in Hell’s Kitchen.
It’s hard to discern any weak link in this cast. From romantic leads Seymour (Rob McClure) and Audrey (Lena Hall), to the monstrous venus fly trap lovingly named Audrey II (Aaron Arnell Harrington), to supporting characters like Orin Scrivello D.D.S (Bryce Pinkham), Mr. Mushnik (Brad Oscar), and Urchins Ronnette (Ari Groover), Chiffon (Khadija Sankoh) and Crystal (Tiffany Renee Thompson), this beautifully cohesive cast moves through downtrodden yet often comedic and upbeat fictional Skid Row with animated and dynamic demeanors that make the show feel endearing and tragic even amongst the outrageously camp script and score.
A fair warning should preface this show solely regarding its source material. The original 1982 stage adaptation with music by Alan Menken and book and lyrics by Howard Ashman is inspired by the 1960 Roger Corman film. The show dates itself by glossing over domestic abuse and misogyny, which is not unbelievable since it was never intended to be an impactful social commentary. Also, more than one of the characters – both human and botanical – lack redeeming qualities entirely and are merely motivated by malevolence.
While this production is recommended for ages 5+, I would not suggest it for anyone under 12 or who might be negatively affected by the aforementioned themes in addition to less than discreet sexual innuendos, vulgar language, gore, murder and, of course, the massive flesh-eating plant.
With all of this in mind, this show has been praised since it was welcomed back to New York City with glowing reviews back in 2019 from director Michael Mayer. It has since then boasted a consistent stream of acclaimed musical stars including Jonathan Groff, Christian Borle, Jeremy Jordan and Skylar Astin.
Doomed Love Interests
Now McClure, a Tony nominee renowned for his roles in “Chaplin,” “Beetlejuice,” and “Mrs. Doubtfire,” and Tony winner and Grammy nominee Lena Hall of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” deliver a two-hour masterclass both individually and as partners. The two bring unbridled nuance, complexity and sentimentality to these cartoonish, doomed love interests whose respective psychological damage becomes their own deadliest enemy.
McClure has a knack for portraying the lovable, innocent, virtually harmless leading man, but this might be the first role he’s played where that gentle nature becomes stuck in a proverbial boxing match with a relentless pining for the love and security he’s been deprived of all his life that drives him to devolve into greed and violence. And yet, McClure makes Seymour extremely difficult to root against. I spent the majority of the show reminding myself that I don’t condone the actions of this anti-hero as I struggled to not be empathetic to his clumsy, awkward, soft-spoken nature and desperate yearning to simply be valued and desired.
While Audrey is, at her core, wildly insecure, self-degrading and downright fearful, Hall manages to find her strength. This is not necessarily exemplified through action. Audrey never actually leaves her abusive boyfriend (Scrivello). She is only free of him once he disappears. Even then, she continuously reverts to self-sabotage and insists that she doesn’t deserve respect or kindness.
Rather, in her solo ballad “Somewhere That’s Green,” through an effortlessly clear tone and strong but gently restrained vocals, Hall’s Audrey develops a palpable sense of bubbling hope and optimism as she ponders the life she aches for. This finally bursts into a full-blown revelation when she and McClure go on to belt “Suddenly Seymour” together, a glorious journey of a duet that results in the two sharing a long-awaited passionate embrace which evokes a roaring applause from the audience as if to say “finally.”
Pinkham and Oscar stay fiercely committed to their roles as the sadistic dentist and selfish, manipulative shopkeeper. Both characters are so farcical that the majority of the hilarity – in addition to Pinkham’s standout physical comedy – stems from their utter lack of self-awareness. They don’t play the roles ironically. They remain steadfast in their absurd convictions and behaviors, making them paradoxically amusing and easy to despise.
Audrey II might be a merciless carnivore, but that plant can sing. While Harrington’s deep, dark voice bellows as it maniacally laughs, taunts and soulfully croons, the remarkable costume design and puppeteer work combine to make this sharp-toothed symbol a spotlight-stealing character. From the moment they strut onto the stage, doo-wopping and wagging their fingers in the titular “Little Shop of Horrors,” the three Urchins center the show while seamlessly shifting from narrators to characters involved in the action with hilarious facial and vocal expressions, blunt one-liners, and an awareness the rest of the characters don’t benefit from.
Now is the perfect time – both on the calendar and due to the phenomenal cast and creative team – to grab your tickets (starting at $69.00 at Telecharge) and make your way to a theater where every seat provides an unobstructed view of this absolutely stellar production. Don’t miss your chance, but don’t feed the plants!