By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out“)
When the musical Mrs. Doubtfire was preparing to open in 2020, the show became a victim of the forced lockdown of all theaters in New York. When COVID restrictions were relaxed and it finally opened in December of 2021 at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre, producers had hoped the worst of the pandemic was over. But the Omicron variant caused the production to shut down again for two months after just a few weeks on the boards.
By the time the show emerged again from its self-imposed shutdown in April, ticket sales had failed to generate a significant audience. Reluctantly, the show’s composers and lyricists, Louisiana natives Karey and Wayne Kirkpatrick, and major producers pulled the plug just as its star Rob McClure was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Leading Actor in a Musical.
When lyricist Howard Ashman and composer Alan Menken were planning Little Shop of Horrors, their first off-Broadway collaboration, they could not have selected a better actor to portray the timid floral shop assistant. McClure’s body type notwithstanding, he leaps across the stage interacting with his fellow cast mates and the puppetry magic that is Audrey II, the extraterrestrial man-eating plant that dominates much of the book’s action.
McClure is an agile, inventive and brilliant performer. Defying traditional standards of leading men, he plunges into his characters in such a way as to completely own them. Audiences and critics have responded enthusiastically to his all-in acting method and the producers of the off-Broadway Little Shop of Horrors took little time in offering the now-available McClure the chance to step into the role of Seymour Krelborn, a part that seems tailor-made for him.
McClure follows other established stars with Hollywood good looks like originator Jonathan Groff and others like Jeremy Jordan, who followed him as Seymour. But seeing McClure as Seymour in the current production playing at the Westside Theatre in New York makes one question if he wouldn’t have been a more ideal choice from the get go.
McClure is cast opposite Tammy Blanchard, who originated the role of Audrey in this current production, but is slated to leave in September. Blanchard is an absolute dream as the ditzy shop clerk. She is delightful in the number “Somewhere That’s Green,” initially with the urchins Crystal, Chiffon and Ronnette (Christina Ray, Khadija Sankoh and Kalifa White) and later in a solo reprise in Act II. She and McClure are spectacular in the number “Suddenly, Seymour” in which the characters of Seymour and Audrey outwardly express their love for each other for the first time.
Playing sadistic dentist Orin Scrivello is two-time Tony Award winner Christian Borle, at least for another few weeks. When not inflicting harm to his patients, Orin is either using Audrey as a punching bag or sucking up copious amounts of nitrous oxide as a recreational drug of choice. His biggest number “Dentist!” occurs more than halfway through Act I with the Urchins in support.
But Borle plays at least seven other roles, some speaking, some singing and some silent, but all hysterical. His dizzying changes occur most especially in the number “The Meek Shall Inherit” in Act II, where he plays three different characters, Bernstein, Luce and Snip. Slated to leave the show in order to star in the upcoming musical remake of Some Like It Hot, Borle is expected to leave at the same as Blanchard.
But to watch him move and in and out of the various characters is to watch a seasoned professional. Borle, who has left his many roles on several occasions during the show’s run, has returned to enjoy the opportunity to show off his comic prowess and he and McClure are hilarious in Orin’s final number “Now (It’s Just the Gas),” the Act I closer.
The comedy is also held high by Stuart Zagnit, whose journey with Little Shop of Horrors must seem like a set of theatrical bookends. Now playing shop owner Mushnik, he was the last Seymour in the original Orpheum production staged by Ashman and Menken. A fantastic character actor, he has one featured number with the Urchins (“Ya Never Know”) and one opposite Seymour in “Mushnik and Son.” Zagnit is also prominently featured in the early Act I number “Skid Row (Downtown)” and in the finale with the other company members.
The final major actor in the show is Aaron Arnell Harrington, who accompanies the many master puppeteers’ moves (there are at least three) as the voice of Audrey II. Harrington’s deep resonating voice plays opposite the Urchins in “Suppertime” and later opposite Blanchard as Audrey and Audrey II become aware of one another in “Sominex/Suppertime Reprise.”
There are few off-Broadway endeavors that feature such an incredibly talented cast and with such superb music and lyrics as those found in the current production of Little Shop of Horrors. Tony Award director Michael Mayer helms this production, while he continues to work on the out-of-town Boston opening of the Neil Diamond musical A Beautiful Noise.
Conductor Will Van Dyke, who is music supervisor, arranger and orchestrator, plays keyboards and leads a small ensemble of guitar (Nate Brown), drums (Dena Tauriello) and bass (Mark Verdino), which sounds so much larger than its numbers might indicate. Michael Aarons is credited as the Music Coordinator.
Puppet design is by Nicholas Mahon, based on the original designs by Martin P. Robinson. The puppets are rendered by Monkey Boys Productions with puppeteers Josh Daniel, Chelsea Turbin, Eric wright and Teddy Yudain.
In short, one does not need the James Webb telescope to see that McClure’s addition to this already stellar cast has made this show go super nova.
Little Shop of Horrors (2 hours and 15 minutes with a 15-minute intermission) continues its Westside Theatre run at 407 W. 43rd Street in New York. For more information, click here or call 212-315-2302, Mon.-Fri., 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. CDT.