Little Shop of Horrors started as a black-and-white cult flick in 1960, shot in two days and a night by Roger Corman, with a cameo by Jack Nicholson as a pain-loving dental patient. Twenty-two years later Alan Menken and Howard Ashman turned it into an off-Broadway musical, which was so successful that a bunch of Saturday Night Live and SCTV alumni like Steve Martin and Rick Moranis were recruited to shoot it as a musical film in 1986. (Don't bother with that version.) It went on to invade drama departments in high schools across the land, and now, for no reason except that two more decades have passed since the original production and audiences still turn out to see big, dumb shows about carnivorous plants from outer space, Menken has revived Little Shop for Broadway, with a new American tour.
The story's simple. A poor Jewish florist in New York sees his fortunes turn when his shop assistant puts a small, Venus' flytrap-looking plant in the window. The assistant, Seymour Krelbourn, learns how to make the plant grow until it becomes grand and colorful -- the subject of radio and TV shows -- and Seymour himself becomes a celebrity. He names the plant "Audrey II," after a blond sexpot who also works for Mr. Mushnik, the florist. But Audrey II thrives on human blood. The larger she grows, the more she needs, until poor nerdish Seymour has to shovel humans into the plant's maw just to keep up appearances with the TV people and the beautiful Audrey I, who becomes his girlfriend.
That isn't the weird part, though. The weird part is that Audrey I begins the show in love with a sadistic, motorcycle-riding dentist. Oh -- and Audrey II? She talks like a black man and claims to be a space alien. And sings funk.
Like I said, some things a critic can't touch.
The current touring revival features a newly enormous Audrey II, not the 9-foot Muppet from the 1982 production but a mountainous, hydraulic-driven Frankenflower that needs a team of puppeteers. (Actually, the flower comes in four sizes, meaning four separate puppets; but the massive one is the star.) It's co-designed by the Jim Henson Co. and Martin P. Robinson, who invented the original plant. Michael James Leslie does the voice -- "FEED ME!" -- and sings the churning, sinister, hungry songs. He's good, but his vocal presence doesn't match Levi Stubbs' performance in the musical film, which was an outrageous highlight. (Stubbs used to sing in the Four Tops.)
Lenny Wolpe plays a surprisingly sensitive and menschy Mushnik -- not a petty tyrant of a shop owner but a sad, downtrodden one, with his cashmere sweater and Yiddish phrases. His klezmer number, "Mushnik and Son," complete with Fiddler on the Roof-style shtetl dancing, is hilarious. Tari Kelly is also powerful as Audrey I, especially in the ballads "Somewhere That's Green" and "Suddenly Seymour." (Her voice is soaring and crass at the same time.) Anthony Rapp does good work with Seymour's Jewish patter but struggles a bit with the songs, unless the off notes in his voice are meant to be part of Seymour's character. James Moye, unfortunately, is flat as the rebel dentist Orin Scrivello.
Maybe the strangest part of Little Shop is the odd blend of genre and race: I wonder if Roger Corman ever realized, back in 1960, that he'd inspire an accidental celebration of the New York melting pot. The three tough black dropouts who perform the rave-up title song and the introduction number, "Downtown (Skid Row)" (Yasmeen Sulieman, Amina S. Robinson, and LaTonya Holmes, all terrific), dress in plaid private-school skirts and sing doo-wop, which is awfully white. The Jewish Seymour is caught up in a Faust story. He bought the male-voiced, female plant from a Chinese man, Mr. Chang, whom the black girls make fun of. The set, designed by Scott Pask, makes Mushnik's shop look like something realistic from a Bernard Malamud story pasted onto a backdrop by Charles Addams. And there may be no other score in the American songbook that mixes pop-klezmer with funk.
The whole thing is beyond my powers to criticize. If it were anemic and silly, like the Rick Moranis movie, that would be one thing. But it works, and I have no idea why.