The Epic Return of Little Shop of Horrors, and Ellen Greene

A day after the mind-blowing Encores! Off-Center production of Little Shop of Horrors, I received an email from New York City Center asking whether I enjoyed the performance. By any reasonable person’s standard, though, “enjoy” is an understatement.

On a humid Thursday night in NYC last week, a sold-out crowd witnessed a historic night in American musical theater—the incomparable Ellen Greene, who originated the role of Audrey more than 30 years ago, reprising her iconic role and adding layers of new depth and maturity to a show that many of us thought we already knew like our own reflections.

“Historic night” is by no means hyperbole. Greene, who played opposite the handsome and talented Jake Gyllenhaal (more on him in a second), received three standing ovations from the enthusiastic audience before the final curtain call—the first for merely stepping out on the stage and reciting her opening line. The vociferous adoration she received was as much about recognizing her contributions to this classic show as it was about what she did in this production to deepen our love and understanding of the character Audrey. From “Somewhere That’s Green”—my personal favorite—to “Suddenly Seymour,” listening to Greene, it felt as if I were hearing these songs anew. Many in the audience, I believe, were so swept away by this once-in-a-lifetime performance that we thought we were watching the show for the very first time. I sat next to guy who seriously bawled during Audrey’s death scene, which is actually written as comedy.

The cast that supported Greene in this revival understandably stepped aside for her during the curtain call. We were all cheering, screaming, jumping and clapping for her, and they knew it. But the cast deserves their due. The urchins, played by Tracy Nicole Chapman, Marva Hicks and Ramona Keller (you’ll recognize these names from Caroline, or Change) were hilarious, gorgeous and talented as all get out. Joe Grifasi was endearing as Mr. Mushnick. Eddie Cooper, with his deep baratone, soared as Audrey II. Saturday Night Live‘s Taran Killam proved himself a versatile Dentist Orin (and about five other random characters). And he can sing! Who knew?

104687Of course, the standout, aside from Greene, was Gyllenhaal. He brought a certain hip-hop swagger to the nerdy role of Seymour. I loved his beard. And who would have guessed he had more than a serviceable singing voice? Gyllenhaal and Greene performed with some serious chemistry between them—forget the nearly 30 year age gap, it didn’t matter!

For me, the moment of the night was Greene taking her bow beneath a big projection screen paying tribute to writer and lyrists Howard Ashman. To see such a brilliant playwright lost way too soon to the AIDS epidemic give me a deeper appreciate for a show that’s already one of my favorites. Long live Ashman through the music and lyrics of Little Shop—and through his friend Ellen Greene. My Audrey for life.

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