“He’s a strange little man.” That’s how the New York actor Gideon Glick describes Seymour Krelborn, the menschy, dorky, ultimately murderous antihero of the cult classic musical “Little Shop of Horrors,” whom Glick, 31, is currently playing through March in an Off Broadway revival that runs at the Westside Theater. The production opened in October with the actor Jonathan Groff in the role, but Glick, who was at the time starring as Dill Harris in Aaron Sorkin’s Broadway adaptation of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” filled in for two weeks in November when Groff had a conflict. At the end of that temporary stint — during which Glick’s deep skills as one of New York’s best contemporary character actors (namely, his ability to channel his own inherent strangeness, his high voice often cracking, his knees seemingly quaking) were on full, glorious display — the director, Michael Mayer, asked if he wanted to take over the role after Groff finished his contract.
The only downside was that Glick had just one day off after his “Mockingbird” gig ended, and would have to practice puppeteering Audrey II, his human-eating horticultural “Little Shop” co-star that he operates at certain points in the show, during the final days in his Broadway dressing room. (For those unfamiliar, the musical is about a lowly botanist, Seymour, who becomes a local phenomenon after an exotic plant, seemingly from outer space, suddenly enters his life and continues to grow, thanks to its diet of blood proffered by its conflicted caretaker.) Still, Glick could hardly refuse the part, he says while nibbling on a croissant at PlantShed, a suitably on-the-nose cafe and flower shop near his apartment on the Upper West Side. “I had wanted to do ‘Little Shop’ my whole life — I mean, it’s a musical about a man-eating plant! It’s outrageous and it shouldn’t work and yet it completely does.”
It’s hard not to read Glick’s own life story into this statement. He was born, in the suburbs outside Philadelphia, without a right ear — he has microtia and atresia, meaning he’s missing both an outer and inner ear. In first grade, the external parts were constructed from some of his rib cartilage; later on, he received an artificial ear canal and eardrum, but he’s still half-deaf, lacking the intrinsic stereo sound that one might falsely presume is a prerequisite for a leading role in a major musical. Over the last decade, Glick, who is gay, has established his own kind of endearing-but-awkward type by playing gawky, often gay characters in straight plays such as Stephen Karam’s “Speech & Debate” (2008), Samuel H. Hunter’s “The Few” (2014) and Joshua Harmon’s “Significant Other” (2015). He grew up doing musicals in Philadelphia, though he’s rarely auditioned for them since his breakout as a member of the original cast of “Spring Awakening” (2006), which was also directed by Mayer. But Glick had never starred in a New York musical — and didn’t necessarily intend to: “I was nervous that the anxiety and stress of it would maybe make it not worth it, but ‘Little Shop’ was the test of whether I could do it again,” he says. “I’m a nervous person. I’m a nervous singer. And then the hearing element makes it just a lot more daunting.”
It’s kismet, then, or perhaps just plain good casting, that Seymour is one of theater’s most enduring representations of that sort of manic energy. Though the musical has been remounted with varying degrees of success over the years (Seymour often played by an incongruous hunk, notably Jake Gyllenhaal), Mayer’s tightly directed rendition maintains more of the gay-adjacent, camp sensibility — with its doo-wop chorus, B-movie shading and root-for-the-underdog empathy — of the original, created in 1982 by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, who would go on to write two similarly sly Disney movies: 1989’s “The Little Mermaid” and 1991’s “Beauty and the Beast.” (That Ashman would die of complications from AIDS in 1991 only makes the play’s blood panic all the more prescient.) Then as now, the “Little Shop” songs are clever earworms. But in the hands of Christian Borle, who plays the sadistic dentist Orin Scrivello, and Tammy Blanchard, who plays Seymour’s down-on-her-luck love interest, Audrey, they take on a blue, mournful quality, with a dark tinge that Glick also harnesses. “As an artist, I benefit from the anxiety,” he says. “It’s in the way Seymour speaks — he’s a meek guy. And then you see him grow in confidence, a confidence rooted in killing people, which is a good psychological study of where we’re at culturally.” Glick reads this two ways: On one hand, thanks in part to the rise of streaming platforms, we’re in the age of cultural reboots (there’s also a movie remake of “Little Shop of Horrors,” directed by Greg Berlanti, in the works). And while the actor is loathe to oversell the political implications of a musical comedy about a carnivorous plant, he’s not not thinking about it: “The show’s about making a deal with the devil,” he adds. “In a way, I feel our country’s made a deal with the devil.”
Still, “Little Shop” is perhaps best known today as a relic, particularly the 1986 movie musical, in which Seymour was played, appropriately, by Rick Moranis (and the ending was changed, inappropriately, to be more uplifting). Yet the play’s innate intimacy and winking, satirical style — actors literally climb into a giant, cartoon-green, oversize plant puppet when they’re “eaten” — benefits from its new, smaller stage. It was Ashman who reportedly said that he didn’t want “Little Shop” to move from its Off Broadway home, the Orpheum in the East Village, where it played for more than 2,000 performances, to a larger, glitzier Broadway venue. It’s easy to see why when sitting in one of the Westside’s 270 seats, the actors mugging in close range, the Skid Row sets intentionally shabby, the fake blood taking on the endearing, barely scary quality of a 1980s science-fiction film. Indeed, the new “Little Shop” works so well because it conjures an earlier age, those punk days that preceded our current era of polish and perfection, when roughness was built into the culture, when you went to the theater to see what worked — and also what needed work, fully aware that something could go wrong, and knowing that such spontaneity might resonate, too. Glick, in his own way, embodies that throwback spirit. “I’ve always thought of myself as a folk artist, a self-taught artist,” he says. “Maybe rough around the edges, but hopefully there’s something in the core that strikes people.”