LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS * Book and lyrics by Howard Ashman * Music by Alan Menken * Directed by Jerry Zaks * Starring Hunter Foster and Kerry Butler * Virginia Theatre, New York City (open run).

Get ready for the long Broadway run of Little Shop of Horrors, the smashing new revival of the 1982 musical by Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman based on Roger Cormanís campy 1960 horror film. Whatís not to like? The audience already knows the story of the nerdy orphan in a Skid Row florist shop whose secret formula for producing a giant exotic plant earns him fame, fortune, and the heart of a masochistic beauty named Audrey. We walk into the theater humming the catchy pop-rock score and anticipating the jokes with great relish. And our expectations are more than met. Like the recent revival of The Rocky Horror Show, this Little Shop isnít just a cynical Xerox of a pre-sold product but a first-class remounting.

The original version, directed by Ashman himself, ran for years Off-Broadway in the East Village. That show and the hit movie it spawned starred cabaret diva Ellen Greene, sobbing out the comic torch songs "Suddenly Seymour" and "Somewhere Thatís Green." The Broadway version is more of a tight ensemble headed by two rising stars, Hunter Foster (Urinetownís original Bobby Strong) as Seymour and Kerry Butler (Tracy Turnbladís best friend in Hairspray). Director Jerry Zaks, a former performer himself, is big on physical comedy and coaxes oodles of vaudevillean funny business out of Foster and Rob Bartlett, who channels Zero Mostel as Seymourís boss Mushnik. The audience may roar at the entrance of Douglas Sills as Orin, the sadistic dentist Steve Martin played in the movie, thinking they know whatís coming. But with Zaksí encouragement, Sills delightfully devours every bit of scenery before it devours him. The man-eating plant Jim Hensonís company designed for this show will go down in history with Miss Saigonís helicopter as one of Broadwayís crowd-pleasing theatrical coups.

As his sharp lyrics attest, Howard Ashman (who sadly died of AIDS at 41) was no dummy, and neither is Jerry Zaks. So while the show offers nonstop entertainment (I havenít mentioned the Greek chorus of Chiffon, Crystal, and Ronnette, here sporting updated home-girl attitude), itís not about nothing. A domestic monster that thrives on blood and devours everything including its creator may have been a comic metaphor for Communism in the Red-baiting Ď50s, but we donít have to look any farther than tabloid TV and the murky war-making machinery in Washington to supply our own contemporary parallels. Little Shop of Horrors certainly isnít Ph.D thesis material, but the last scene with blood dripping down the proscenium and the pod-encased principals warning "Donít Feed the Plants" does produce the kind of laughs that stick in your throat.

The Advocate, November 7, 2003