Christian Borle is hardly underappreciated in the theater. He has been nominated for four Tonys and won twice. But he needs to be appreciated even more. Borle managed the impossible feat of being both sexy and ridiculous in “Something Rotten!” And he was the craziest Willy Wonka ever, in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” More remarkable is that he managed to be brilliant in those shows, which had few other redeeming qualities.
Borle now appears in the brand-new revival of “Little Shop of Horrors,” which opened Thursday at Off Broadway’s Westside Theatre, and he literally tears up the stage as the sadistic dentist-boyfriend Orin Scrivello. He also more than pops in a variety of smaller roles after Orin’s demise, but his true magic is how he tackles the walk-on role of the Customer who first notices an exotic flesh-eating plant known as Audrey II. Bedazzled by what this passerby sees in the florist-shop window — the role is so small the character is not even given a name; he’s just the Customer — he buys a $100 worth of nearly dead red roses, and, in effect, keeps the shop alive, making it possible for Audrey II to go on its killing spree.
Borle is so disguised as the Customer (stylish costumes by Tom Broecker) that he’s unrecognizable. Only later, when he enters as the wild-eyed Orin, does he rate the obligatory star-entrance applause. Regardless, Borle’s Customer receives guffaws after every other word (Howard Ashman’s book is not especially witty here), and the way he picks one blanched rose out of the wilted bouquet and tosses it in disgust to the stage floor brings down the house.
This “Little Shop,” under the direction of Michael Mayer, doesn’t really sprout until Borle’s Customer arrives. And without him in many of the following scenes, it tends to wilt. The three urchin back-up singers (Ari Groover, Salome Smith and Joy Woods) always manage to delight with the doo-wop songs by Ashman and Alan Menken, and co-stars Jonathan Groff and Tammy Blanchard are also in very strong voice. It’s too bad that the developing love affair between the two lead characters, the put-upon shopkeeper Seymour (Groff) and Orin’s masochistic girlfriend (Blanchard), never ignites comic sparks.
Ellen Greene, the original Audrey, offered up a bruised Betty Boop. Blanchard is far more damaged flesh and blood. Her young Judy in the TV movie “Life With Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows” remains indelible, and her Audrey often appears to be playing the older zaftig Garland, as opposed to Renée Zellweger’s even older and anorexic Garland in the current film “Judy.”
Her somber take brings a bracing splash of reality to this Skid Row story. She grabs our attention. She’s also not very funny. Then again, would even Greene’s approach, playing a physically abused female who’s always asking for it be a laugh fest, play in this #MeToo era? Only Blanchard’s interaction with Borle’s zaniness brings a whiff of helium to this walking doormat.
Most of Blanchard’s scenes are with Groff, of course, and he provides a rather squishy sounding board. In a recent Encores! production of “Little Shop,” Jake Gyllenhaal managed to use his good looks to comic effect, twisting them into something genuinely loopy. He does the same in the recent Netflix film “Velvet Buzzsaw.”
Groff’s features are a little more regular, and here, he often appears to be a handsome guy slumming in a nerd role. He knows how not to stress the Grand Guignol in order to delay some of the laughs, but subtlety isn’t what’s always required with “Little Shop.”
After the Encores! and Broadway revivals, it’s nice to see “Little Shop” back where it belongs, Off Broadway and in a small, intimate theater. Audrey II needs to more than fill the stage; the plant needs to spill off into the audience. First timers will be enchanted. For others, it’s a disappointment that Martin P. Robertson’s original puppet design hasn’t been tinkered with. The Audrey II designed by Nicholas Mahon is a clone rather than a whole new monster.