The mood was ecstatic last night for the first of three concert performances of Little Shop of Horrors, the nearly perfect 1982 musical that’s the centerpiece of this summer’s “Encores! Off-Center” series. (The two remaining performances are today at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.) In the dark before the purple curtain rose, the sound of the first guitar chords drew cheers of recognition; later, the evening’s big celebrity draw, Jake Gyllenhaal, though costumed for his role as the nebbishy Seymour Krelborn, was welcomed like a rock god. So too were the trio of singing urchins (Tracy Nicole Chapman, Marva Hicks, and Ramona Keller) who act as the show’s sassy chorus, and the adorable little boy (Anwar Kareem) who did nothing much but carry around the bloodlusting Venus flytrap that eventually (in a larger form played by Eddie Cooper) eats Cleveland. Saturday Night Live’s Taran Killam, making his New York stage debut as the sadistic, nitrous-oxide-huffing dentist Orin Scrivello, got laughs before he opened his mouth. It was that kind of evening. Even the dentist’s chair got entrance applause.
But the greatest ovation was reserved for Ellen Greene as the battered shopgirl Audrey, a role she originated 33 years ago. (Greene also starred in the excellent movie version.) Throughout the evening, her every pose and line reading, some anticipated like lyrics at a Simon and Garfunkel reunion, produced a huge emotional response. No doubt this was partly nostalgia, a case of memory superimposing itself on reality, because Greene, though in great shape at 64, no longer has reliable top notes to float in ballads like “Somewhere That’s Green” or to belt in showstoppers like “Suddenly, Seymour.” It didn’t matter, because she was offering something more than compensatory, something that incorporated the nostalgia into a performance concept. Hers is a Kabuki Audrey, exaggerated and refined almost to the point of modern dance: a series of attitudes and postures that make up in sculptural power what they abjure in naturalism. One such posture might be called “Subservience”: face tilted down, hands outstretched with palms up, legs braced as if against an expected attack. Another (the one that she took in “Somewhere That’s Green”) involves flattening herself into the narrowest rectangle of vertical space available, and somehow comically suggests, more than almost any dramatic depiction I’ve seen, the limited horizons of an abused and powerless woman.
Though she seemed genuinely shocked by the audience reaction, Greene knows exactly what she’s doing. At times, the huge pauses she took in the midst of lyrics made me wonder how far she could stretch the rubber band of the audience’s concentration without breaking it. It never broke. For all the roaring, the most thrilling moments of the show were those in which the 2,257 people filling the seats at City Center were reduced to silence by her mimetic (and long-honed) genius.
The rest of the evening had a hit-or-miss, let’s-put-on-a-show quality that delightfully recalled the humble origins of Encores! itself. Though the mother season, in winter, has over the course of its 21 years developed nearly to the point of offering full-scale productions of Broadway musicals, the three-year-old summer season, devoted to Off Broadway, is scrappier and less polished, as befits the kinds of shows it produces. (Astonishingly, this Little Shop was put together in just eight days of rehearsal.) Most of the actors, though not Greene, read from their scripts at times, and a number of slip-ups and near-pratfalls added to the feeling of fresh discovery. Certainly Gyllenhaal contributed to that feeling. Though an attempt to make him look unprepossessing will only get you so far (his ugly is about at Jon Hamm level), he cleanly hit all the charmingly diffident notes of the part — and turns out to be a compelling singer, too. Likewise, Killam, often switching hastily among a half-dozen of the show’s supporting parts once the dentist departs, landed them all, finding new laughs in very familiar bits. Of course, to an SNL guy, eight days’ rehearsal must have seemed like an unimaginable luxury.
The approach might not have worked with most other shows. But Jeanine Tesori, the artistic director of the Off-Center series, has chosen her offerings smartly, almost as if dressing light for the hot season. Inherent quality is part of it, too, of course, and Little Shop is unusually well crafted. There’s a reason it ran for 2,209 performances at the Orpheum, where it moved after premiering at the tiny WPA Theatre. The book by Howard Ashman, and the score, with lyrics by Ashman and music by Alan Menken, manage the trick of affectionately mocking the conventions of girl-group doo-wop and comic horror (the show is based on the 1960 film by Roger Corman) while making them unexpectedly expressive. A kind of botanical Sweeney Todd, it supports its genre pleasures on an armature of morality. In Little Shop, it’s not about injustice and revenge, but the dangerous desire to be noticed, and what people will do for it. Luckily, some of them did this.
Little Shop of Horrors is at City Center through July 2.