Review: ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ at the Kennedy Center

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It has taken more than 35 years for Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s iconic musical Little Shop of Horrors to reach the Kennedy Center. But it’s been worth the wait! The Kennedy Center’s Broadway Center Stage production of the legendary off-Broadway extravaganza, masterfully directed by Mark Brokaw, hits all the right notes.

Broadway Center Stage at the Kennedy Center is a welcome addition to the Capital area’s rich mélange of musical theater. Launched last year, the series revives hit musicals from previous eras, luring leading stars – songbooks in hand – for short runs in simply staged productions.  

Little Shop of Horrors Company. Photo credit: Jeremy Daniel

Nothing, however, looked skimpy or unrehearsed about this production. It is beautifully staged by Scenic Designer Donyale Werle who creates a tawdry New York Skid Row with a couple of rolling stairways paired with gigantic vertical beams suggesting elevated rail tracks under which dead-end lives play out. Projection designs by Alex Basco Koch reinforce the play’s dispirited downtown setting where Mushkin’s flower shop, a pathetic relic of an earlier era, is on the verge of closure. Gorgeous lighting design by Cory Pattak enhances the production with increasingly spectral, other-worldly effects. The Kennedy Center’s Opera House Orchestra, under the lively direction of Joey Chancey, is situated in mid-stage, always in sight but never visually detracting from the actors.

Great performers paired with terrific, time-honored songs bring Little Shop of Horrors to life. Megan Hilty (Smash) as Audrey combines fine acting with superb singing, gutsy at times and crystalline when the occasion calls for it. Her rendition of “Somewhere That’s Green,” is a high point of the production. Truly comic in her aspirations for a limited, conformist middle-class life, we nonetheless melt with empathy for Audrey’s reach towards Donna Reed-like perfection. Who couldn’t love a home where TV dinners grace the dining table and plastic-covered furniture greets guests?

Josh Radnor (How I Met Your Mother) is endearingly klutzy as Seymour, the beleaguered flower shop employee who becomes a horticultural hero when he displays the mysterious plant, Audrey II, in the shop window. Radnor is especially good in his duets with Hilty (the charming, comic “Call Back in the Morning”) and with Lee Wilkof as Mr. Mushnik (“Mushnik and Son”). Wilkof, a powerful stage presence who originated the role of Seymour on Broadway, comes full circle as Seymour’s greedy, manipulative boss and owner of the shop.

Josh Radnor and Nick Cordero. Photo credit: Jeremy Daniel
Josh Radnor and Nick Cordero. Photo credit: Jeremy Daniel

Nick Cordero fully inhabits the salacious role of Orin Scrivello – who became a dentist as a way of channeling his sadistic tendencies. His rendition of “The Dentist” drills deep into every painful episode we have ever experienced “in the chair.” Cordero is equally adept as a host of other bit characters – most of whom seek to cash in on Seymour’s increasing fame. The lively, jivey Greek chorus of urchins are played by Amber Iman (Crystal), Amma Osei (Ronnette), and Allison Semmes (Chiffon). Aided by Spencer Liff’s spirited choreography, they set the stage for us with their “Prologue” and the especially well-written “Skid Row,” returning at key points to guide us through the story. Sound is often tricky in the Kennedy Center theaters, and dialing back the orchestra a bit during their numbers would enable the exceptional lyrics to be better heard.

While the offending plant Audrey II is most often “played” by a grotesque puppet, here it takes human form. Michael James Leslie (substituting for James Monroe Iglehart), who originated the role of The Voice of the Plant in Little Shop of Horrors in Los Angeles, London, on Broadway and in the National Tour, returns to the production in the flesh, so to speak, resplendently costumed by Jen Caprio. The overall effect is mesmerizing.

Little Shop of Horrors was a splendid choice for the Kennedy Center’s Broadway Center Stage. Divorced from super-extravagant trappings, the lively songs and devilishly clever lyrics stand more fully on their own. In some ways, Little Shop of Horrors shows its age. Its broad treatment of African Americans, Jews, a ditzy blonde, and a serial abuser might never launch a musical today. But in a larger sense, this show explores what it means when the American dream goes off the rails, options for a better life are squelched and avarice conquers our better angels. In that sense, it is both timeless and timely.

Running time: approximately 2 hours with one 20-minute intermission.

Little Shop of Horrors plays through October 28, 2018, at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts Eisenhower Theater — 2700 F Street, NW in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 467-4600, or purchase them online.

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