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Howard Ashman And Alan Menken’s “Little Shop Of Horrors” At Westside Theatre, Saturday, February 10th, 2024, 2pm, Reviewed

If you don’t include the Sherman Brothers, Robert and Richard, book and lyricist Howard Ashman and composer Alan Menken, were Disney’s greatest find, Ashman (with Mencken) wrote The Little Mermaid, Beauty And The Beast, and Aladdin, a triumvirate that saved Disney with a malaise that took the studio’s legendary animation department from the 70s through to the late 80s dark ages and a new golden age. Ashman did this despite a severely truncated lifespan due to AIDS. If Mencken wasn’t quite as great as Ashman, his gifts were still undoubted and they together gave us the greatest off-Broadway musical in “Little Shop Of Horrors”: a horror story seconding as a 1950s pop music satire based upon a Roger Corman movie.

With nine roles (plus a carnivorous plant) and a three piece band (plus electronics), it is tailor made for Off Broadway, summer stock and High School gymnasiums. It began life off-off Broadway and built from there including a movie. The movie was alright (great music and a great plant (aka Audrey II) from Frank Oz of Muppets fame. It has been performed constantly, everywhere, ever since. In 2019 it was revived at the Westside starring Jonathan Groff -currently wowing us in “Merrily We Roll Along” and just last week we got two big stars in the leads. Darren Criss of Glee fame as Seymour, the nebbish with a crush on his co-worker Audrey (Evan Rachel Hunter), they’ve worked together before and are blueprint as the duo who work at a flower shop on Skid Row till Seymour discovers a small plant that grows and grows on a diet of people.

A terrific book and an even better set of nascent rock and roll and soul with a Greek chorus -Ronnette, Crystal and Chiffon (get it?)- portrayed by Tiffany Renee Thompson, Morgan Ashley Bryant and Khadija Sankoh. Everything’s in place but I didn’t exactly go for that. I wanted to see Evan Rachel Wood as the tragic Audrey who discovers there are worse things than an abusive boyfriend.

I thought Evan’s role in “Thirteen” when she was sixteen was about exactly what you wanted though she didn’t impress on my brain for four years, till the deeply upsetting and brilliantly executed “The Life Before Her Eyes’ about a High School shooting where the shooter, a teenage boy, corners two girls in the bathroom and tells them only one of them can live. After that I noticed her. Fast forward ten years and she has the lead in HBO’s “Westworld” and gives a strange, moving, and then powerful performance as Delores: an android who is so kind and gentle and is raped,murdered, and reset every night. This is at the heart of something unique in Evan: the role has her going from a gentle and lovely frontier to an avenging angel of death. Whether in her personal life where the loathsome Marilyn Manson raped her during a video , or through role after role, she is violently hurt by men. In “Westworld” she rises above it and in “Little Shop Of Horrors” she doesn’t.

So I went to see Evan but I saw Audrey, a sweet, working class, nasal and yet not irritating woman in a very abusive relationship; 1950s, tight dresses and blood red lipstick, her heels having her tower above her love interest. The best song in the musical is “Suddenly Seymour” and she powers it with a vocal timorous that gained her an ovation. I’d forgotten the Beatles jukebox movie “Across The Universe” and I’d forgotten Evan had a rock duo Evan And Zane -which I missed at Webster Hall but probably shouldn’t have. She can, you know sing and it is an ongoing duo (not unlike She And Him). The latest single, a cover of “White Rabbit”, is a gothic wail with a strong vocal.

Indeed, the cast is singular throughout, Darren Criss is wonderful as the murderous caretaker of the plant and the girl group urchins are exciting, Stephen DeRosa has the most thankless role as the flower shop owner, and as the woman beating dentist (played by Steve Martin in the movie adaption) was an understudy, Johnny Newcomb, in a glinting, witty, and nearly sweet interpretation.

As for the songs? We mentioned the best, but everytime the girl groupers sing together on the title song or harmonize on “Skid Row (Downtown)” near the top, it is 50s pop magic. The musical moves inexorably into out and out horror and the apocalypse with all the heroes dead and Audrey II’s world domination soon come.

Grade: A

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