BWW Review: Gloriously Reimagined LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS Kills at Pasadena Playhouse
First, a confession. This reviewer has never before seen a live stage version of the cult dark musical comedy LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS before---that is, until this brand new production showed up in Southern California.
Up until that moment---when the music started to swell to welcome a trio of divalicious ladies that strutted forward to sing their introductory doo-wops and their spectacular take-me-to-church riffs---my only point of reference is, like probably for most people, the nutty-but-curiously enjoyable1986 movie musical directed by puppeteering genius Frank Oz (you know, the guy who played Yoda in Star Wars). That film---itself the big screen adaptation of the original 1982 Off-Broadway hit---also featured a memorable 60's-soul songbook penned by composer Alan Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman (yes! those guys!). Their inspiration came directly from famed horror director Roger Corman's own 1960 B-movie original that started the craze for this unique macabre tale.
Right away, the differences between the movie musical and this even newer stage version---now playing through thunderous applause at The Pasadena Playhouse through October 20, 2019-is immediately palpable. At its core, the original production (and the movie adaptation it spawned) unabashedly celebrated its campy outlandishness. How could it not, when one of your characters is a demanding, jive-talking, flesh-eating plant with a penchant for blood and Soulful R&B?
But unlike the source material which was filled to the brim with sassy sight gags, cartoonish mannerisms, and pulp thrills, this new production in Pasadena---directed by Mike Donahue---feels much more grounded in reality and feels much more guided by the emotions of its characters rather than have them just play second banana to the monstrous plant of excess vying for all the attention.
With this pivoted focus, this incredible new production of LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS also now requires a cast of performers that can truly showcase that change---and, wow, did they ever find them in this brilliant ensemble!
Anchored much more by actual realism rather than a farcical, Penny Dreadful-esque hyper-exaggeration the musical has been known for, the show pretty much axes its goofier, almost kooky machinations to embrace a much more stirring, vulnerable, and deeply layered tone that makes for almost a completely new musical.
Don't get me wrong---the macabre comedy, the totally out-there plot, and the dark humor is still very much present. Only now, it's got way more heart, too.
Though not specifically mentioned, this vibrant yet dull-colored new iteration perhaps now takes place in modern times---or, um, at least the 90's judging by the Salt N' Pepa meets TLC meets Seattle grunge outfits worn by the show's awesome resident "Greek chorus" Ronnette (Brittany Campbell), Chiffon (Tickwanya Jones), and Crystal (Cheyenne Isabel Wells), who sing throughout the show offering narrations, exposition, and amazing back-up vocals in 60's doo-wop style when needed.
When the show opens, as it typically does, the three ladies warn about the horrors of what we are about to experience, then later warn about the dangers of their 'Downtown' neighborhood where this odd little tale unfolds. Their surroundings are bleak yet not as comic book-hued as this show's ghetto was depicted in its original 1960's setting.
To that end, the set---designed by Dane Laffrey---is slightly bare bones, budget conscious, and much less colorfully vivid than you'd expect... an early and very loud sign that this production is quite different from other LITTLE SHOPs you've experienced in the past. Similarly, Danae Iris McQueen's curated costumes feature muted colors to reiterate their surroundings while Josh Epstein's sharp intuitive lighting design evokes a skid row lit from industrial sources. Musically, the cast sounds amazingly powerful accompanied by the show's lovely-sounding orchestra musically directed by Darryl Archibald and conducted by John Gentry Tennyson.
With its darker, muddier tones, this LITTLE SHOP swirls in a grittier realism, from its dark gray color palette to the harsh overhead fluorescent lighting that is typically found in humble stores such as the titular shop at the center of this musical. It's funny how this darkness is such a stark contrast to the lighter, almost effervescent sounds of Ashman and Menken's wonderful songs.
This realism, funny enough, only further enhances the weirdness of the more outlandish, over-the-top scenes in the show---making them seem like plausibly horrific things that can truly happen in our current environments. Though these outlandish scenes are also similarly minimized, the impact is still adequately implied.
The cast is just outstanding. George Salazar---just fresh off a star-making turn in Broadway's BE MORE CHILL---is just exceptional here as Seymour, a nerdy, socially-awkward worker bee-slash-botany aficionado at a beat-up downtown flower shop owned by his guardian Mr. Mushnik, played with believably frazzled yet adorable gruffness by Kevin Chamberlin.
Salazar is a vocal powerhouse, with riffs and stirring acting choices that, truly, gave me goosebumps throughout the show. His portrayal of a debilitatingly shy nerd is quite believable, filled with the relatable panic of someone who's unsure that he is good enough for, well, anything. He quickly earns our empathy, with visions of Evan Hansen dancing in some of our heads. Later, when he finds a predilection for growing an odd new plant, his self-esteem begins to improve, which Salazar humorously demonstrates.
Salazar's shy Seymour, as expected, quietly pines for the very pretty, very seemingly self-assured Audrey, the sweet girl-next-door---played with exquisite vulnerability by Pose's MJ Rodriguez---who also works at Mr. Mushnik's store. Because Audrey shows Seymour unconditional kindness when almost all others do not, he sees a kindred spirit in her and develops an unrequited crush.
Audrey, on the other hand, is a dreamer just like Seymour. She longs to live a simple, uncomplicated life far away from the grit and grime of their ghetto. She wants to escape the harsh realities of her current life... and her mysterious past. When she shows up for work late with a black eye, Chamberlin's Mr. Mushnik morphs into a genuinely worried father figure who doesn't like that Audrey is dating someone that clearly hurts her.
In a very welcome revision to the character, Rodriguez ditches the pixie-like, cutesy Betty Boop-ish Audrey persona from past iterations and instead gives her a grounded and captivating tenderness that feels more approachable and relatable. This more realistic characterization also opens up newer emotional layers by proxy.
The song "Somewhere That's Green" though still filled with amusing lyrics, suddenly takes on a gentler, more sensitive mood, with added context due to the fact that Rodriguez is transgender and a person of color. The lyrics she sings take on extra meaning and heartbreak. And with all these notions spinning in my head as I watch her spill out her character's vulnerability---not to mention hearing Rodriguez's gorgeous vocal work in the song---I couldn't help but shed a few tears... something that has never happened to me while listening to this song in the past.
It was then that it was solidified for me that this will become the benchmark upon which past and future productions shall be judged against for years to come. This LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS is the real deal.
So why is Audrey so melancholy? Well she perhaps feels trapped in her volatile relationship with dentist Orin Scrivello, D.D.S. played with shudder-inducing sadistic glee by Matthew Wilkas, who also takes on several other minor roles throughout the musical. Audrey's black eye and bruises is most likely the result of her very violent boyfriend, who lords over Audrey like, well, a monster. Unlike the movie, where this domestic abuse almost becomes an afterthought; here in this new production, it echoes the very real occurrences that happened in many rooms across the world, where the victim feels obligated to stay despite such a dangerous environment.
For his part, Wilkas makes his dentist both a source of riveting fear and a source of hearty laughs---the guy is a rough bully, but he is also quite a dumb ass. The dentist has a strange and wickedly frightening fetish for inflicting pain and suffering on others, which apparently leads him to a career that gives him access to torture devices like a dental drill and dental pliers. Wilkas plays up the sinister evilness with such creepy hammy giddiness that's hard not to laugh at... but then turns on a dime, and your heart races with anxiety.
Naturally, Seymour hates the guy and we, of course, side with Seymour to win over Audrey so that she can escape his violent clutches. But how can a shy, meek guy like Seymour compete with a strong, charismatic, and outgoing dude like the dentist?
By chance, Seymour is sold a plant seedling from Chinatown, which, unbeknownst to him, just happens to be chockfull of alien particles from outer space. The seedling turns into an unusual looking plant that Seymour feels he can cultivate into something spectacular, which he can then display out front to attract customers to Mr. Mushnik's flailing flower shop---where the customers and orders have consistently dwindled with each passing day. Seymour feels obligated to make things better for Mr. Mushnik, since he was nice enough to take Seymour in after he became orphaned.
Surprising everyone, the weird plant---whom he, of course, dubs the Audrey II---grows bigger each day and begins attracting people to the shop off the street. The notoriety even lands Seymour an interview on the local radio station. Seymour even gains a bit more confidence, a change not lost on his crush Audrey.
An unplanned injury, however, provides a surprisingly dangerous discovery: Audrey II seems, uh, sentient. Not only that... the plant seems to have a thirst for blood. So each day, Seymour would cut small slits on his fingers to feed drips of blood for Audrey II to devour, causing her to grow larger... and larger... and larger, vocally demanding to be fed even more.
But as we know from other similarly plotted stories, the bigger these things get, the hungrier they get. Pretty soon mere drops of blood from Seymour's hands are not going to, uh, cut it anymore.
For this production, the full-grown Audrey II's amazing voice is provided by former Glee star Amber Riley, whose live vocal work here is a ferocious, riff-tastic upgrade of what is typically voiced by a baritone (and, yes, she's in the house singing live, not through a pre-recording). Amber's demanding barks and effortless vocal gymnastics match the re-envisioned talking plant, an almost abstract ghost that adequately scares the crap out of Seymour and all others who end up meeting her in the, um, flesh.
And thus begins Seymour's test of morality. What is Seymour to do? Audrey II is demanding more human flesh. Where will he get them? And what if his crush, the original Audrey finds all of this out?
In all sincerity, this brilliant, gloriously reimagined new production of LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS is such an experiential upgrade for audience members because, above anything else, the production revels in its inventive minimalism and its purposeful diversity, creating a theatrical experience that multiplies its layers of emotional resonance---perhaps not just for the audience watching but for the very talented acting troupe that has been tasked to perform this creatively auspicious new iteration as well.
What the show lacks in typical dazzling accoutrements and over-the-top special effects, it more than makes up for it with its excellent talent roster, its superb musicality, and its newly contextualized story that here in this new production feels much more enjoyable in many more deeper levels rather than it simply being something to laugh at.
One significant alteration did take some extra imagination adjustment in order for me to fully immerse myself in the actions on stage: the omission of the typical super enlarged puppet to act as the the fully-engorged Audrey II. The smaller Audrey II puppet (still planted inside the coffee can) is an adorable reimagining of the "baby" version of Audrey II. But once she starts to grow, the presentation had me feeling a little short-changed, especially since this is the first time I am seeing a live production of the musical outside of the movie.
It's certainly a curious path for this new L.A. revival to take considering much of the show is so steeped in realism, though it does make sense to go to the opposite extreme for its more fantastical element.
At first, admittedly, I was not acceptably enthused by this production's "implied" visual of the eventually engorged Audrey II (I won't spoil things by describing the initial effect, but let's just say it was like watching your high school classmates carefully put up garlands for the winter ball in the gymnasium). But eventually, I bought into it because the performers (and Audrey II's hardworking, black-clothed puppeteers) that interacted with this suggestion of Audrey II are just so darn committed to selling this vision.
Designed by Sean Cawelti, Audrey II here exists more as a mysterious boogie man, a hovering ghostly monster that basically hides in the shadows instead of being viewed as the enormous elephant in the room that you can't miss. The sole evidence of its existence---besides Riley's terrific voice---is its ivy-like tendrils extending out like the wild tentacles of a sentient horticultural octopus. By the end, when Audrey II's feeding frenzy becomes more pronounced, the form of giant petals synonymous with one's emblazoned image of Audrey II appears and it becomes easier to imagine the activity of this carnivorous plant.
But that is just a drop (of blood) in a musical that is so winningly staged and so impressively performed that its decisions regarding the minimalist presentation of Audrey II become just another part of this production's gusto-filled charm.
I cannot sing the praises of this excellent production enough. From its perfect cast to its newly enlivened songs, this local revival is pure stage magic. It's unusual, atypical, and wholly perplexing in the best most enjoyable way.
In terms of representation, it is also quite empowering to see actors of color in the leads of this musical and do such an honorable job with it. Salazar and Rodriguez prove themselves handily to be accomplished in musical theater, and it shows in their respective portraits of such iconic roles. And their duet in "Suddenly Seymour" has to be one of the best, most heartfelt renditions I've heard of this song in ages (I know it's a pipe dream, but I would kill and feed anyone to an alien plant to get a cast album from these players).
And speaking of cast albums... another thought immediately crossed my mind upon leaving the theater---to think that the geniuses behind this musical went on to usher the movie musical renaissance at the Walt Disney Animation Studios, beginning with The Little Mermaid (their Oscar-winning efforts would carry over to Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin) is such a heartwarming thought.
It's almost always the crazy creative ones who have the best ideas, even if that idea involves a talking, human-eating, singing plant.
Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ
For tickets or more information, call 626.356.7529 or visit pasadenaplayhouse.org.