UPDATE Thursday AM with more performance information: Judy Garland at the Palace had nothing on the crowd that roared when Ellen Greene made her entrance Wednesday night on stage at New York’s City Center for the first of just three performances in a staged concert of Little Shop Of Horrors (Thursday’s matinee and evening shows are nearly sold out). It felt like Homecoming, Sunday church in Harlem and the Governor’s Ball all rolled into two joyfully cathartic hours, part celebration of a more innocent time, part funeral for the loss that soon followed.
Based on Roger Corman’s 1960 movie about a humanity-devouring plant from Outer Space that finds a loving home in Mr. Mushnik’s Skid Row flower shop, the 1982 musical began life at the tiny theatrical greenhouse known as the WPA Theatre, on lower Fifth Avenue. Howard Ashman, the artistic director and librettist, collaborated with composer Alan Menken on the score, a tongue-in-cheek pastiche of ’60s girl-group sass, doo-wop and torchy Broadway balladry. The one-month run was quickly transferred by the uptown powerhouse Trilateral Commission of the Shubert Organization, David Geffen and an unknown Brit named Cameron Mackintosh, to the Orpheum Theatre on Second Avenue, where it ran for five years. Ashman and Menken would go on to Disney stardom, of course (Beauty And The Beast, The Little Mermaid, Aladdin), until Ashman died of AIDS in 1991, at age 40.
Driving it all was the star-making performance of Greene as Audrey, who works in the store, has a sadistic dentist boyfriend and dreams of the good life in a tract house — “nothing fancy like Levittown” — somewhere that’s green. She’s also the love object of Seymour, the put-upon shopkeeper’s assistant who first stumbles upon the plant as a seedling during a total eclipse of the sun and subsequently names it Audrey II. Greene already had a cult following from her performance as Jenny in Joe Papp’s legendary production of The Threepenny Opera at Lincoln Center, but Little Shop secured her place in the pantheon of latter-day Violettas and Mimis, destined for glorious, glottal demise.
So here was Greene all these years later, scarily sleek and bewigged; it could have been Carol Channing up there, except for that voice, seemingly unchanged after three decades: a bated-breath birdsong of chirps and moans that tugs at the heart and then tugs some more, ever threatening to cross the line into camp but triumphing on sheer musicality. As her foils for this staging by Dick Scanlan, Greene was quite wonderfully served by Jake Gyllenhaal as Seymour and SNL‘s Taran Killam as the wicked dentist (among several roles he took on with equal relish). Gyllenhaal’s zhlubby, bespectacled Seymour adds yet another accomplished, unexpected character to the range of stage roles the movie star has taken on; his singing showed both delicacy and, in Seymour’s rousing duet with Greene, “Suddenly Seymour,” considerable power. Flower power, I guess.
Joe Grifasi as Mushnik, Eddie Cooper as Audrey II and Tracy Nicole Chapman, Marva Hicks and Ramona Keller as the back-up singers we’d all love to have embellishing our lives, were all fine. But this fundraiser for City Center’s musical programming rightfully belonged to Greene.