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
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Theatre has been a huge part of my life, both on and off-stage. The arts in all forms heal, transcend and unify.