(l to r) Mj Rodriguez and George Salazar in Pasadena Playhouse’s production of ‘Little Shop of Horrors.’ (Photo: Jenny Graham)
By Lindsay B. Davis
By the time the company of Pasadena Playhouse’s revival of Little Shop of Horrors is fully assembled and belting the song “Skid Row (Downtown)” in perfect harmony not ten minutes into the performance, my eyes are watering. Stripped of some of the chirpy zip of the 2003 Broadway version and taken down a few camp notches compared to the iconic 1986 film, this rendition is sung with power, grace and such searing sincerity that by the crescendoing “Gotta get outta Skid Rowwww” you’ve already got your price of admission. And as the show’s two stars appear in full view for the first time — George Salazar (Be More Chill), the son of Ecuadorian and Filipino immigrants, and Mj Rodriguez (Rent, Street Children) a transgender woman of color and breakout star of FX’s Pose — Little Shop of Horrors feels reborn for a new generation.
The Little Shop of Horrors originated as a low-budget film shot in two and a half days by director Roger Corman in 1960 and served as source material for the composer and lyricist team of Alan Menken & Howard Ashman who created a musical adaptation for the stage. Little Shop of Horrors debuted Off-Off-Broadway at Workshop of the Players’ Art Theatre in 1982 then quickly migrated to Off-Broadway where it ran for five years to great appeal, and won the Drama Desk Award for Best Musical.
Frank Oz directed the 1986 Hollywood film adaptation that introduced the world to nebbishy florist Seymour (Rick Moranis), his aspirational and abused love interest assistant Audrey (Ellen Green, who originated the stage role) and her sadistic dentist boyfriend Orin Scrivello, DDS (Steve Martin, in an incomparable and indelible comedic performance). Rumor has it that a 2020 Hollywood remake in the works could involve Lady Gaga.
The 2003 Broadway staging starring Hunter Foster and Kerry Butler didn’t blossom like its Off-Broadway predecessor, closing in under a year. Cut to 16 years later, and the professional theater world has three major productions of Little Shop of Horrors going on simultaneously across the country, including this brilliant reworking at the Pasadena Playhouse in Los Angeles, located about ten miles north of downtown LA where Skid Row is hardly fiction.
Besides Salazar and Rodriguez, the cast includes Broadway veteran Kevin Chamberlin as shop owner Mr. Mushnik, Matthew Wilkas as Dr. Orin Scrivello, and three newcomers as the 60s doo wop street urchins reborn as a 90s girl group that would give Destiny’s Child a run for its money. Brittany Campbell, Tickwanya Jones and Cheyenne Isabel Wells anchor the musical on their shimmying shoulders (while executing Will B. Bell’s stylistic choreography perfectly) and breathe new life into the greek chorus device.
Under Mike Donahue’s seamless and bold direction, there are a few not-so-subtle and spectacular updates. Audrey II, the plant with a human-size appetite, is voiced by Amber Riley (Glee, the London premiere of Dreamgirls). A small, hot pink miniature plant at the onset, full-sized and multi-tentacled Twoey possesses an abundance of pink and purple hues, its open mouth like a Snapchat-filtered Georgia O’Keefe painting, which could be the first time a musical theater puppet ever visually screams, “vagina!”
So persistent is this imagery that in Act II, the horror camp quality comes through like a B movie if the assassin is a vulva. Thanks to Josh Stein’s lighting, which feels inspired by Netflix’s Stranger Things replete with flickers and brief blackouts, Pasadena Playhouse becomes something of a demonic womb, the walls a hazy shade of brick red, and thin curtain all the protection that stands between a murderous, she-devil flora and her next victim.
Seymour in the hands of Salazar is a lot like Audrey II in the hands of Seymour, which is to say tenderly loved, adored, and given the blood, sweat, and tears treatment. It is clearer than ever that Salazar is one of the brightest stars working in musical theater.
Mj Rodriguez, first trans actress to play Audrey, beautifully captures Audrey’s character arc. At first, her vocals sound tentative until you realize the character is finding her voice. “Somewhere That’s Green,” Audrey’s wistful reflection on life beyond Skid Row, lands like a well-placed curve ball captured in slow motion from the pitcher’s mound to home plate, while “Suddenly Seymour,” the big power ballad duet between Audrey and Seymore, soars like a home run batted out of the park. And the crowd (a diverse mix of humans reflecting the musical’s fan base old and new) goes absolutely wild.
Little Shop of Horrors
39 S. El Molino Avenue, Pasadena
Through October 20