ON & OFF BROADWAY: Little Shop Of Horrors at Westside Theatre Upstairs

Jonathan Groff in “Little Shop of Horrors”

To get right to it — there is an anticipatory glow, even as we settle into our seats, that shouts at us from the house curtain with the musical’s title splashed across it in all its gory glory.

When the curtains part the set is greeted by a burst of applause, because designer Julian Crouch’s dreary flower shop creates a mood of doom seen from the sidewalk in front of it.

At the very top of the show three ladies who prefer to set up the story in song zippily move in unison to Ellenore Scott’s bouncy and bright choreography. They are known as “The Urchins” collectively and individually as Ronnette, Crystal and Chiffon. We will hear a lot from them in the 90 minutes ahead; and though their incredibly powerful voices could be heard unamplified in Yankee Stadium, Jessica Paz’s sound design has them harmonizing so bombastically that I didn’t understand a word they sang. But most of the full house seemed to love the sound; and The Urchins heard hoots, hollers, and applause from the crowd every time they hit us with their perfect pitch and their ear-piercing projection.

Things settled down a bit once we’d met the story’s three principals. There was flower shop owner Mushnik, played strictly for laughs by Tom Alan Robbins. Most of his barbs were aimed at poor Seymour, his chief and only clerk who is a likeable loser for whom we feel instant fondness. There is a waif named Audrey who works there too, and she is a lady with a problem. She’s an attractive, warm and dear young woman who is totally hung up on a sadistic dentist named Orin, whom we will soon meet.

Seymour is played by charming and multi-talented Jonathan Groff who has built his fan base by turning in several acclaimed performances on Broadway in “Hamilton,” and “Spring Awakening,” as well as in a dozen other shows in the regional theaters, off Broadway, and on tour. Seymour is a departure for this excellent leading man who also happens to be a fine character actor. He has great comic assurance and a fine singing voice.

Audrey is in the very capable hands of Tammy Blanchard, whose performance as Judy Garland in TV’s “Me And My Shadows” won her a Prime Time Emmy Ward. She plays unhappy Audrey whose life is so full of unfulfilled promises that when she sings “Somewhere That’s Green,” she is heartbreaking. The lady has a rich full voice, and her way with a lyric is masterful as she proves once again with “Suddenly Seymour” later in the show.

The always welcome Christian Borle is the mentally disturbed dentist Orin; and his mastery of mime, accent, timing, are all brilliant. As Orin meets his fate early in the proceedings, Borle plays about everyone else who pops up in the second act. But each characterization is always based on truth multiplied 10 times to the point where each one is hilarious; he has an uncanny ability to find a kernel of reality beneath each of them, and he seems to having almost as much fun as we do in presenting them to us. Borle has always delivered excellent work, notably in “Something Rotten,” “Falsettos,” “Peter and The Starcatcher,” and so many others. He works constantly on stage and in television, and he’s never been less than original.

The plant that lends its name to the little shop is truly a star as well. Four versions of this monstrous green thing play the plant because it starts life as a seedling and ends as a humongous killing machine. Eric Wright and Teddy Yudain manipulate it and deserve a purple heart for their efforts. Never actually seen by the audience, their manipulations contribute so much to the hilarity of the evening that they are deservedly up there in the curtain calls along with the rest of the company.

I had seen the original New York production in 1982 and enjoyed it. But this time under Michael Mayer’s firm direction, all the elements are tied together into a seamless whole — a most joyous package.

Yes, at the intermission between acts I did suggest to one of the house managers that I thought a little less volume would have benefited the score, but she made it clear that the audiences seem to love the levels just as they are. It’s true that roars of approval met most of the solos and the bouncy, jazzy, delightful though very loud repertoire of the Urchins. I surrender. I don’t like it, but amplified sound is in. The magic of unaugmented music from the Golden Age is gone. The lyrics on ensemble numbers have disappeared as well, but if you bring along a couple of ear plugs you’ll have yourself a swell time at this beautifully realized restoration of a highly original musical comedy.

Connecticut Media Group