With a bit of kitschy theater like “Little Shop of Horrors,” it’s all in the timing. Yes, naturally, the quality of the voices counts, too. But the characters in this 1982 Howard Ashman-Alan Menken musical are cartoons, their fates and feelings anchored so firmly in the artificial turf of the spoof that the success of the show depends less on fresh interpretive elements than on the punch lines all retaining their punch.
The latest proof of the notion resides in the dandy concert revival of “Little Shop” running through Sunday in the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater, featuring a cast that’s uniformly in on the joke. Fans of the show will note that the performances, by Megan Hilty, Josh Radnor, et al., vary little from what they’ve seen before. And that’s okay. In fact, the fullest enjoyment of the musical, a loving lampoon of the cheesiest kind of sci-fi/horror flick, may require the most faithful rebottling possible of the original off-Broadway style and spirit.
The modest mission of the Kennedy Center’s Broadway Center Stage series, now in its second year, is to bring back popular shows and present them in bare-bones fashion, with the orchestra on scaffolding and actors sometimes clutching scripts. This approach, under Mark Brokaw’s direction, comports extremely well with “Little Shop’s” aesthetic, which ideally is tacky, tacky, tacky. And that ideal is mastered in Brokaw’s staging in the exemplary person of Michael James Leslie, who not only provides the vocals for Audrey II — the foul-tempered plant whose diet doesn’t discriminate between supporting and leading players — but also stands up as risibly and quite majestically as the exotic flytrap itself.
Audrey II’s growth spurts in the forlorn Skid Row flower shop of Mr. Mushnik (played to the bilious hilt by Lee Wilkof) occur courtesy of the plasma supply of its nebbishy nurturer, Radnor’s Seymour. Thanks to designer Jennifer Caprio, the visual manifestation of that growth is achieved with witty costume changes and, eventually, as Audrey II’s stems multiply, by the additional ministrations of Amber Iman, Amma Osei and Allison Semmes, the production’s sizzling girl-group trio.
This level of winking glee is sustained through two hours of Menken’s piquant melodies and Ashman’s priceless lyrics: “I know Seymour’s the greatest,” Hilty sings, doing her unforgettable predecessor Ellen Greene proud as too-cute-for-words femme fatale Audrey. “But I’m dating a semi-sadist.” That fiend, a dentist who performs root canals for the pleasure, is played by the gifted Nick Cordero. Mind you, he and Hilty are saddled with the musical’s unfunniest material. This being a piece not of our time, the physical and verbal abuse of Audrey by Cordero’s Orin is treated as a laughing matter, and it just isn’t funny.
Not to sound all high and mighty, but I’ve never found this aspect of “Little Shop” anything but horrifying. These days, it fails the cringe test. A Greenwich Village audience in 1982 may have easily digested Ashman’s ironic exaggeration of Audrey and her attraction to the wrong kind of man. But I wonder whether “Little Shop’s” potential reach today is stunted by repeated jokes at the expense of Audrey’s injuries.
The musical’s heart is suitably bleak as it is; there’s no worry about diluting its dark soul when it sends you into the night with the idea that we’re all going to be swallowed by our houseplants. It helps, too, that Radnor and Hilty are so winning as the doomed lovers and that Hilty’s rendition of “Somewhere That’s Green” and their “Suddenly, Seymour” duet resound with such tuneful, demented innocence.
I’d add that the performances here are good enough to eat. But Audrey II has already taken care of that.
Little Shop of Horrors, book and lyrics by Howard Ashman, music by Alan Menken. Directed by Mark Brokaw. Choreography, Spencer Liff; set, Donyale Werle; costumes, Jennifer Caprio; lighting, Cory Pattak; sound, Kai Harada; projection design, Alex Basco Koch; music direction, Joey Chancey; orchestrations, Danny Troob. About two hours. $89-$215. Through Sunday at the Kennedy Center. kennedy-center.org or 202-467-4600.