As the hot ticket centerpiece of this summer’s Encores! Off-Center series (designed to showcase Off-Broadway musicals of the past) at City Center, “Little Shop of Horrors” one of the most successful Off-Broadway musicals of all time, is receiving a three-performance concert production with Jake Gyllenhaal (who is making his musical theater debut as the nebbish but adorable Seymour) and Ellen Greene (who originated the role of the dreamy-eyed Audrey in 1982 and is returning to the role).
“Little Shop of Horrors” (with memorable music by Alan Menken and brilliant book and lyrics by the late Howard Ashman) premiered at a time when it was still possible for a musical to be commercially successful Off-Broadway. (If the show was written today, it would have instead transferred to Broadway.) In addition to running for five years in the East Village, it received an extremely successful film adaptation and continues to be produced regularly by amateur and regional theater companies. There was also a distastefully overblown Broadway revival in 2003 that is best left forgotten.
Underneath the satire and insanity of “Little Shop” it is a masterful, character-driven piece of musical theater. Menken’s music is catchy and eclectic, with doo-wop and rhythm and blues followed by poignant pop ballads. One can’t help but wonder what else Ashman (who rhymed “Shang-a-lang” with “sturm and drang” in the title song!) would have accomplished had he not died of AIDS in 1991. He devoted most of his life after “Little Shop” to Disney movies like “The Little Mermaid” and “Beauty and the Beast.”
Whereas most Encores! productions are polished and fully staged, “Little Shop of Horrors” really is being presented in an unprepossessing concert format. In fact, the man-eating plant Audrey II is not portrayed by a massive puppet (manipulated by offstage stagehands) but instead by a young boy (before the plant starts its growth spurt) and then Eddie Cooper (Chuck Cooper was originally slated to play the part but had to drop out, so his son was substituted in). As in the original production, the size of the cast is quite small, as is the five-member band.
Given the the limited production values as well as the considerable age gap between Gyllenhaal and Greene, this “Little Shop” is less a cohesive production than a jubilant fan-fest that still manages to tender at the right moments.
Given the inherently theatrical nature of “Little Shop” having an actor portray Audrey II without the addition of complex stagecraft can actually work. Having Cooper onstage also adds a new directness to the heated exchanges between Seymour and Audrey II.
Gyllenhaal, it turns out, has a pretty pleasant singing voice. He avoids the camp that so often infects other productions of “Little Shop” and gives a quiet, touching performance as the “sweet, understanding” Seymour. Since he appears with a heavy beard and glasses, he seems to be asking us to forget his celebrity status and focus in on the character.
Greene, who walks the line of being ridiculous but sincere as Audrey, gives brilliantly funny line readings in addition her inimitable rendition of “Somewhere That’s Green.”
As the loony and sadistic dentist Orin, who becomes Audrey II’s first victim, Taran Killam of “Saturday Night Live” is a fine addition to the cast. Tracy Nicole Chapman, Marva Hicks and Ramona Keller — the original female trio from the musical “Caroline, or Change” — are also in superb form as the Greek chorus observing and commenting upon the plot.
If you go: “Little Shop of Horrors” plays at City Center through July 2. West 55th Street between Sixth and Seventh aves., nycitycenter.org.