By E.M. Fredric
Perennial Off-Broadway and Broadway favorite, Little Shop of Horrors—a horror comedy rock musical with music by Alan Menken and a book by Howard Ashman based on 1960 classic cult film by legendary B-movie director Roger Corman made from a screenplay by Charles Griffith—is enjoying a national resurgence with revival productions sweeping both coasts simultaneously from Pasadena to New York City.
There’s no doubt that Pasadena’s unique version—directed by Mike Donahue and starring George Salazar and MJ Rodriguez—is a certifiable hit. The current West Coast incarnation is addictive comedic fun that satiated a full-house on a recent Thursday night and had the audience screaming with appreciation for the by now familiar rock & roll, doowop and Motown-inflected musical numbers.
For those who don’t know the tale, it’s a simple one. Little Shop follows meek plant store worker Seymour, his co-working crush Audrey l, her sadistic/abusive dentist boyfriend and the blood-thirsty plant (Audrey ll) that threatens them and the world as they know it. The Skid Row flower shop adds to an already formidable arsenal of visual and auditory salvos that tantalize the senses with songs, lights and beats. The foot stomping kind, interspersed with moving ballads.
What sets this apart from previous or current productions is how it came into being. A rising director is made aware of a rising star and they met last December over coffee to discuss the casting of Audrey. Donahue didn’t know if MJ (who transitioned to Hollywood fame this past year on the Ryan Murphy’s FX Pose) would take the role. She thought he wanted her to play the plant. Rodriguez role in the show is like a house-mother to mostly LGBTQ artists trying to co-exist in the NYC 80’s scene. The play was cast in the hope to replicate what Donahue has been quoted as saying, “George, our Seymour, is of Filipino and Latino descent. The plant is a woman, and it’s always stereotypically played by a male,” Rodriguez points out. “These are new things that I feel like people in the audience need to see, to see that there are so many ways that you can bring life to these characters and not just by a specific role played by a specific race.” Plus his feeling that the Playhouse’s approach was to give way to a modern Manhattan melting-pot ground in the ‘60’s-set show. He has said, “New York right now is incredibly diverse.” The creative melting pot still exists.
The plant is a woman, defying past stereotypes while adding new layers. Rodriguez points out. “These are new things that I feel like people in the audience need to see, to see that there are so many ways that you can bring life to these characters and not just by a specific role played by a specific race.” The woman behind the plant, African-American actress Amber Riley, is known for being in the Golden-Globe-Winning musical comedy Glee who is African-American as well as two of the three skid row girls who are powerhouses in keeping the glue between action and song - Britanny Campbell and Tickwanya Jones. Riley’s plant is a nuanced dance of all things maternal. Cheyenne Isabel Wells as the third skid row school kid is a crooner and belter worth the price of admission alone. A magical all-seeing chorus, indeed.
Kevin Chamberlin as shop owner, Mr. Mushnik clearly earned his three Tony-Award nominations and Matthew Wilkas as the boyfriend/dentist, Dr.Scrivello is deliciously delirious and oh so delectable in the multiple roles he displays in this tightknit cast.
MJ does a wonderful job making Audrey l her own by displaying both the tender and strong-willed woman she needs to be while suffering abuse. Ellen Greene originated the role and has reprised her iconic status many times since - not an easy act to follow.
The lines sung, “I cook like Betty Crocker and I look like Donna Reed” aren’t lost on the audience in the twist of color by Audrey. Much can be stated in how far this helps actors of a certain color or gender, Trans, Cis or fill-in-the-blanks – but what truly makes a great show memorable is really good showmanship and this show has it all. Megahit!
The hilarious irony of the following lyrics in one particular tune, “I cook like Betty Crocker and I look like Donna Reed” is not lost on the audience, which revels in the additional layer of humor the non-traditional casting ignites.
While there is much that can be said about how much this benefits actors of a certain color, sexual orientation or gender identification, be they Trans, Cis or fill-in-the-blank pronoun, but what truly makes a great show memorable is really good showmanship and this show has it all. Little Shop of Horrors runs through October 20th.
Tickets online: www.pasadenaplayhouse.org. They can also be ordered over the phone at 626-356-752 or purchased in person at the Pasadena Playhouse Box Office, 39 South El Molino Avenue, Pasadena, CA 91101
And on Brooklyn & Boyle
By E.M. Fredric
WESTWOOD, CA - 09/08/2019 - The Geffen has been making more hits than misses this past year and Witch is no exception to their choice in plays to produce. This wonderful take on witches, devils, souls along with the state of the world (then and now) is written with great comedic aplomb by Jen Silverman. She feeds her actors’– in this retelling of a Jacobean drama – roles with delicious choices of the absurd nuanced reality set against all that’s royal.
We quickly find that Elizabeth (Maura Tierney) is a banished woman who has been assigned the title of a witch. Sir Arthur (Brian George) decides to bring in a lesser class but oh-so-popular local – Frank Thorney (Ruy Iskandar) as his second son, so that he’ll produce an heir. Sir Arthur’s real son, Cuddy (Will Von Vogt) likes/loves/hates Frank and won’t be producing an heir anytime soon but the jealous rivalry between the two makes for fantastic fodder.
Everyone seems to have a secret or want to sell their soul quickly to the devilishly handsome, Scratch (Evan Jonigkeit). He’s a devil who has had many forms and he’s collecting souls in exchange for promised deeds (which he forgets to do the paperwork on). Scratch is more of a devil-in-training. Instead of fire he actually has heart – surprising himself as much as us.
The servant (Vella Lovell) is married to Frank and Cuddy wants her to marry him because she’s pregnant – all fantastical yet all-too-real situations revealing what people do to get what they want – not what they deserve and vice-versa.
Elizabeth surprises Scratch by saying no to selling her soul initially and by the end we realize she was willing to all along but the two do a dance of seeing one another for who they are not who they are presented as - in terms of labels. She’s not really the witch and Scratch is changed deeply by their interactions and he regales us with a spectacular monologue at the end.
Witch succeeds on every level. The set has the upper class world set with a huge table that expands out and retreats to give us the intimate moments where Elizabeth lives. Barefoot in the dirt. Is there hope for our world? Is anything worth hoping for or should we just blow it all up and start from scratch – so many questions and nuances are laid out. Kudos to cast, playwright and every designer connected to this project.
If you’ve got friends coming into town, do NOT miss this show. Bring them. Your stomach will hurt from laughing. My best 92-year-old friend said, “This is funny!” during a moment in the play - we were seated in the first row. The actor playing the devil thanked him and the laughs continued on from there.
RUN to this show - best 95 minutes of theatre happening now with no false notes! Richly acted and rousingly moving with flawless direction by Marti Lyons.
Witch runs at the Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater at the Geffen Playhouse - 10886 Le Conte Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90024 - through September 29th. The running time is 95 minutes with no intermission. Tickets start at $30 and can be purchased by phone at: (310) 208-5454 or online: GEFFEN PLAYHOUSE
A review can be read both online and in hard copy at: Brooklyn and Boyle.
By E.M. Fredric
Helder Guimarães © Geffen Playhouse
Westwood, CA – 05/16/2019 – Master illusionist and storyteller – Helder Guimarães’ one-man show – Invisible Tango opened Wednesday at the Geffen Playhouse’s Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater. The Portuguese born magician’s looks are as deceiving as they are alluring. As Helder steps into view – in what appears to be a study – before the intimately arena seated audience – he looks more like the romcom guy who never gets the girl. He is dressed in a vest, matching jacket, a tie, jeans, sneakers and red glasses. Guimarães doesn’t appear to be the man of intrigue or an enigma until he opens his mouth and spreads his hands – with a deck of cards. It’s quite remarkable what a simple deck of cards can do.
“What you see is not right or wrong but always part of the whole image.”
At that moment, this philosophical and theatrical artist takes us on a mystery duet for the next 80 minutes – at times taking the lead and at other times appearing to follow. He never loses sight with his slight-of-hand as he regales us with tales of his life and seems to savor every moment with us.
This magician has a wicked sense of humor and a warmth in the way he interacts and draws you closer – wanting to know the answers of how the cards changed or how things disappear – or how he knew those numbers and suits… He can make you believe the impossible is possible if you surrender – but he’s not telling you the answers. He wants you to question, almost demands it, because he does. He states, “Everything happens for a reason.” Then, after he gets his nods in agreement, he tilts his head and smiles quizzically, “Really? Does everything happen for a reason?”
Every detail is designed to make this a symbiotic and evocative experience. The music (by Moby) and sound (by Alex Hawthorn) is just enough to accent the set (designed by François Pierre Couture) which is crafted to enhance the storytelling as every shelf on the wall holds something that has meaning – it becomes another character in the show. Elizabeth Harper’s subtle lighting gives us a day/night texture and feeling. This show is all about the senses we’re born with – used or not. A great reminder to reawaken them and reconnect with the kid within.
How often do we want to give up when things are a mess – like a deck of 52 pick-up cards – not being able to find order, control or ponder, what’s the point? Then ta-dah! Helder swiftly rolls chaotic lines of red/black/red/black into perfect sequence – before your eyes – informing you that it was your choice to give up, not believe or to have fun while in the midst of chaos. He didn’t give up on figuring it out.
TED Talk: HELDER: Magical Search For A Coincidence
Guimarães tells us a story of an old friend throughout the myriad of card tricks, this old clown we grow closer to and can imagine, then comes a notebook he bought that has clues to a previous owner, an accident he had – all the while guiding us, getting us to answer and participate. David Copperfield can have his enormous sets and screens that detaches the performer from the audience. The smallness of Guimarães’ setting lets us hang out with him, relate to him, let down our guards and decide what we can relate to in his personal stories and walk away with our own things to question. It’s a humorous, at times serious but a surprisingly serene inquisitive interaction that occurs. Or is it between us and ourselves? Nothing Helder does is easy as he redirects our thought process in the hopes of enlightening while entertaining. He’s the embraceable teaser on a quest.
Does everything have a meaning? You decide. Hindsight as they say is 20-20 and unfortunately the gift that comes lately but perhaps after seeing the show? Or at least during it – you will see life as a mystery and question what truth is for you. Treasure the mysteries.
It’s a mesmerizing, magical and memorable ride. It might alter your life’s path or have you recheck your core belief system. If we’re defined by the secrets the secrets we keep, we need to share more – there’s some magic in that statement.
Directed by legendary film producer/director Frank Marshall (Jurassic World, Indiana Jones, Goonies, Back to the Future).
Guimarães last amazed and charmed Geffen audiences in the smash hit Nothing to Hide, the two-man magic show that extended four times before transferring to New York and Invisible Tango has already extended to the end of June by popular demand.
Helder Guimarães has a bit of the “quiet” rock star in him.
Audrey Skirball Kenis Theatre at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave. Los Angeles, CA 90024 Tickets run $30-$175.00 Available in person at box office, by phone at 310.208.5454 or online. Show runs May 7 thru June 30th, 2019.
Theatre has been a huge part of my life, both on and off-stage. The arts in all forms heal, transcend and unify.